Monday, March 28, 2011

Serious Games in Bilbao

A great few days for the first time in Bilbao. A great line up of speakers organised by the youthful, energetic and very efficient team at the Creativity Centrum of Bilbao. Thanks to Nora, Jone and their boss Pedro for the hospitality and support in making the event so successful. Also a great turn out of over 200 people on each of the two days of three that I was able to attend. The British Consul Derek Doyle and his Trade and Investment Adviser Maria Fitzpatrick were also fantastic hosts at our speakers’ dinner in a traditional local men’s cooking club – known as a kotchka.

I have chosen two presentations to write about now. More to follow.

To learn is to change a brain system
The very impressive Dr Walter Greenleaf of InWorld Solutions presented the current power and reach of virtual environments and healthy games. Based on over 25 years of R&D, virtual environments and healthy games are used in prevention, coaching, training, evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation. In surgical training, for example, pre-operative planning and image-guided surgery are becoming the norm. This is already transferring to be part of the standard of care with a greater acceptance of computers and technology as part of the clinical process.

Walter explained how “virtual environments have progressed to the point of acceptable virtual realism, believable real-world physics and adequate sensory immersion”.

The reach of Walter’s work is extensive whether helping war veterans recover from post traumatic stress syndrome. One work in progress showed the carefully designed; astonishingly convincing avatar Counsellor supported by sophisticated artificial intelligence and instantaneous voice recognition software that provides counselling to troubled military personnel who would not otherwise go to a real-world counsellor.

The key to progress in changing behaviour and responses is the ability to change the patterns of the brain. This is becoming better understood. Enabling neuro-plasticity allows the experiences enabled through virtual environments and healthy games to safely and repeatedly engage the brain’s reward system. By repeating experiences and the brain’s responses to these, it is possible to change behaviour and responses of the brain’s limbic system. A solider returned from Afghanistan will no longer experience terrible fear and anxiety when driving under a bridge in their home town in the involuntary reaction that a grenade could be lobbed at their car from above. By repeatedly exposing the brain to the experience where no grenade appears the anxieties can be released.

Walter also supports the rehabilitation of extremely violent children and helps patients to escape addictive behaviours.

Games zapping cancer cells
Health psychologist Pamela Kato spoke about the development of games-oriented training programmes to support the reduction of fatal errors in the American Healthcare system. As for the UK the statistics of death and increased illness due to errors by doctors and surgeons is very grave.

Pamela cited the main problems as insufficient communication, poor teamwork skills, low levels of professionalism (ie between surgeons and doctors) and of course the ever present stressful environment.

Virtual environments and games can help doctors and surgeons confront some of these issues and training programmes can help to support changes in understanding, self-awareness and acceptable and non-acceptable behaviours.

Pamela demonstrated two games that she had developed for children with cancer to help them in a gaming environment to in one game kill cancer cells and in the other to kill poo (yes, poo), to get through to fissures in the intestinal wall which could be closed by ‘shooting’ them .

Initial research is showing that this activity supports quite dramatically increased chances of survival. Games also support young people with taking medication - particularly where medication regimes are complicated and critical. It is very difficult to get teenagers to adopt to consistent behaviours. Games can engage young patients to take better care of themselves

It may even be the case that it is possible to make healthcare safer for patients through the utilisation of innovative approaches such as games. But more research is needed.

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