Think gaming is all a corporate sex-and-violence fantasy-fest creating an apathetic, warped new generation?
Then you'll want to know that gaming is being hailed in some places as having the potential to be the exact opposite.
A new movement devoted to what's called serious gaming held its first conference last year, putting the interface between gaming and the health care industry on the top of the agenda.
Previous moves to link health care and gaming didn't result in terrifically effective technologies. When the Nintendo Entertainment System popped up in living rooms in the late 80s, it didn't take the health care industry long to realize that it would be a good idea to design educational games for young players.
Unfortunately, they didn't have much going for them in the entertainment department: Rex Ronan (1993) was an 8-bit experimental surgeon who shrank himself and entered the body of his patients to blast away at tar and phlegm built up from years of smoking. Bronkie The Bronchiasaurus (1994) was a dinosaur that needed help controlling his asthma.
But these weak first attempts have been succeeded by interactive virtual worlds that are starting to make a dent in the gaming market.
Glucoboy, the newest thing from Guidance Interactive Healthcare, is a blood glucose meter that plugs directly into Nintendo's GameBoy Advance.
Inventor Paul Wessel noticed how his seven-year-old son, diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, clung to his GameBoy but ran from his blood-sugar monitor.
Combining the two gadgets solved the problem. Wessel's company has completed trial runs for Glucoboy, to rave reviews from parents and health care providers. The interface is designed like a video game and downloads exclusive games onto the GameBoy as a reward for maintaining good blood sugar content.
There are other gaming platforms that have tried to instill a sense of responsibility in kids diagnosed with diabetes, but they're strictly old-school: Packy and Marlon, the title characters from an old Super Nintendo game, are two diabetic elephants doomed to wander their summer camp in search of a balanced meal and insulin shots. Captain Novolin is a diabetes freedom fighter whose arch enemy is a bouncing doughnut. Compared to Glucoboy, these games seriously lack the street cred to appeal to a 10-year-old.
The industry is looking to adults for the next big wave in health care gaming. The market has been flooded recently with games based on the enormous success of Dance Dance Revolution, the interactive arcade game that gets gamers dancing on floorpads based on cues from the screen. A new trade fair in Las Vegas last month touted this field of "exergaming" as the newest way to slim a rapidly fattening public.
This year Xbox has released Yourself!Fitness, a game that brings an aerobics instructor into your living room to coach you through a personalized workout routine selected from over 500 different exercises.
The virtual reality world of console gaming has also provided a flexible platform for psychologists to deal with mental health issues. VRPhobia is a virtual reality platform used in exposure therapy, where patients with specific phobias can be exposed to their fear (flying, heights) without actually getting into a plane or climbing a mountain. The current version can only be used under the supervision of a trained psychologist, but home versions are in the works.
As gamers grow up, so do their games. Naysayers argue that games marketed toward adults can never reach enough critical mass to make a dent in the obesity epidemic.
But for kids, products like Glucoboy could be an exciting opportunity that allows them to start taking control of their lives.