Computer games keep elderly on their toes

Published 21 July 2011 05:01, Updated 28 July 2011 07:23

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At 79 years of age, Pam Angus-Leppan is not the target market for dance mat manufacturers but she’s nonetheless hopping around on a mat’s oversized arrows to the beat of her favourite tunes.

And what’s more, she’s enjoying it.

“The dance mat is a real challenge,” she says. “You can see the arrows going up on the screen and you need to keep your mind on the ball to take the right step at the right time. I’m much more aware of where I’m putting my feet and I’m more confident that I can right myself when I’m out and walking.”

Angus-Leppan is participating in a breakthrough fall-prevention program developed by Stuart Smith, senior research officer at Neuroscience Research Australia.

Using a specially developed dance mat and a slowed-down version of the dance games that have been popular in games arcades since the 1990s, he is helping the study’s participants to improve their balance and response times so as to maintain their mobility and prevent falls.

“I first came across video games being used to rehabilitate spinal patients in Ireland,” he says. “It had always been hard to motivate patients to do their rehabilitation exercises, until they came up with a camera-based computer game that used a game controller and embedded the participant in the TV screen.

“Then rather than having to drag these guys downstairs to do their rehab every day, they were suddenly lining up at the door.”

After Smith returned to Australia in 2007, he began contacting local game developers to investigate the cost of developing a game specifically for rehabilitation purposes. Unfortunately, he discovered that the funding required was prohibitive. As a result, with a grant from the National Medical Research Council, he put together a team of developers and embarked on a rehab game project.

“We looked at using the normal dance mats but they weren’t really appropriate,” he says. “So I hopped on a plane to China and found a manufacturer who could make one up according to my specification.”

And it doesn’t stop at dance mats.

The hugely popular Fruit Ninja game, which the independent Brisbane-based game studio Halfbrick developed initially for iPhones, has also been slowed down and retooled slightly for use in a stroke rehabilitation project.

“Rehabilitation wasn’t on the list of reasons we were developing the game,” Luke Muscat, lead designer and executive producer of games at Halfbrick, says. “But when Stuart contacted us about it, it didn’t take much time on our part to create a version of Fruit Ninja that stroke patients could use. We’ve provided a specific build according to what Stuart was asking for because the whole clinical trial stuff is way outside what we knew about.”

There is still a long way to go before a therapeutic version of Fruit Ninja can be made commercially available, Muscat says, but he’s delighted that the game is being used in such a socially beneficial way.

“On the one hand there’s an entire industry that’s based on making fun and rewarding things to do out of repetitive movements and on the other hand we’ve got an industry that makes people better by using boring repetitive movements,” he enthuses. “It all works together perfectly.”

As a participant in one of the early trials, Angus-Leppan is looking forward to the time when the technology becomes available to her peers and hopes that one day she’ll be able to play dance mat games via the internet with her grandchildren, who live overseas.

“We could use the mats to compete with people all over the world, which would be a wonderful way for people to connect with each other,” she says.

“Staying healthy into old age is all about finding ways to challenge yourself and this is one of the best ways I can think of to do it.”

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