Oct. 13 2014

Let’s face it: video games and public health aren’t exactly in the same universe. But as gaming increasingly becomes a part of everyday life for all ages and nations, fresh opportunity has emerged to combine the virtual and the actual.

conferencetable-280x328.jpegThe Mailman School and Perfect World, one of China’s biggest gaming companies, have embarked on a shared journey to develop a virtual platform with gaming elements to promote healthy aging in China. In that country of 1.4 billion, the number of seniors is expected to grow nearly 40 percent to 248 million by the end of the decade.

On September 30, company officials joined with Dean Linda P. Fried and researchers from the Mailman School and other parts of Columbia University for a roundtable discussion to plant the seeds of a forthcoming collaboration. Perfect World CEO Robert H. Xiao said his ambition is to take his company beyond “the digital arts” to pursue an ambitious social mission. Tipping his hat to the Mailman School, he said, “you gave us a chance to do that.”

The concept stemmed from a conversation between Xiao and Tomas Guilarte, chair of Environmental Health Sciences, about how science and public health could be brought to bear within the popular new medium of game design, aided by a dream team of researchers who study the mind, brain, and behavior in the context of aging.

Experience Points
Age-related memory loss isn’t inevitable. This was the message of Nobel Prize-winning Columbia neuroscientist Eric Kandel, who introduced the group to ongoing studies at Columbia of a protein called osteocalcin, which acts as a hormone in the body and seems to protect memory. Physical activity has been found to buffer the age-related decline of osteocalcin.

Ursula Staudinger, lifespan psychologist and director of the Columbia Aging Center, reported findings in a similar vein. After only six months, seniors who engaged in aerobic activity three times a week for 45 minutes could process new information more quickly; neuroimaging revealed that prefrontal areas of the brain which undergo age-related functional decline were reactivated to process information more efficiently.

Columbia neuropsychologist Yaakov Stern uses a video game called Star Fortress in his studies of executive function, or how people are able to concentrate on a single task—something that declines with age, he said. “That’s why older people are poor drivers.” The game has been used by the Air Force to train pilots; Stern looks at how with training, it can help seniors pay better attention.

Slaying Dragons

After a heavy dose of science, video game developer Jack Emmert gave Columbia researchers an action-packed tour of the video game world, from puzzles and first-person shooters to massively multiplayer online role-playing games. 
In the popular multiplayer Neverwinter game, gamers from around the world form teams to complete tasks like slaying a dragon: one casts a spell to weaken the creature, another finishes the task with a virtual sword. Once a solitary pursuit, video games now foster online communities.

The collaboration between Perfect World and Columbia University will provide a unique opportunity to make use of “virtual realities to train and encourage successful aging,” said Staudinger. “There is the potential that we may be able to develop an Internet-based platform with gaming elements that helps to make the most of our longer lives. The platform may be suited to playfully encourage a healthy lifestyle as well as civic engagement.”

According to Dean Fried, the creative partnership between Columbia and Perfect World has potential not only to support healthy aging of individuals, but also to “stimulate innovation for how to create a life-stage that has never existed before on a large scale.”

Or in gamers’ parlance, to “level-up.”