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Conference Explores Medical Uses for Video Games

Perched on a rocky outcropping, Phil Feldman took careful aim and shot David "Bart" Bartlett once in the head with his sniper rifle. Bartlett shrugged it off — he had a situation to deal with nearby.

A bank had been the site of a terrorist attack, releasing sarin nerve gas (search) downtown. As he threaded his way through the bodies, a second bomb exploded, flinging the former Marine across the street like a rag doll.

Not to worry. The whole scene — rocky outcropping, nerve gas, and all — was playing out on a computer screen at the University of Maryland Medical School in Baltimore, as part of the two-day Games for Health Conference (search) that began Thursday.

Bartlett merely pressed the reset button on the computer console before him.

Bartlett is the vice president of marketing for Forterra Systems Inc., (search) a company specializing in military and disaster management simulation video games — although games may not be the right word for what they do.

Bartlett envisions a future where emergency crews and managers can get together once a month, blow up major American cities, and deal with the aftermath without leaving their offices. Taking online multiplayer games as a model, the "players" can interact just as they do in the real world, projecting their voices through their characters on the screen.

In a nearby room but a world away, Feldman has developed a new sort of, well, joystick, that he hopes will allow video game addicts to play their games but still get some exercise while they're doing it.

That’s the point, says Feldman, an inventor and avid bicyclist. His device, called Kilowatt (search), looks like the kind of exercise machine one might see in a health club. But attached to a popular video game such as Halo (search), Kilowatt replaces the joystick and requires the player to control the game through vigorous body movements. Feldman hopes to attract some of the 53 million gamers who plunk themselves down on the couch to play video games for hours at a time, but may not make it to the gym all that often.

The device can adjust the amount of resistance up to Olympic weightlifter level, for what Feldman calls "games without guilt."

Bringing together the disparate elements at the fringes of video games and medicine is the reason for the conference, according to organizer Ben Sawyer. Sawyer is the cofounder of the Serious Games Initiative (search), aimed at bringing video games out of the killer zombie realm and into the real world.

"Not everything that comes out of this is a game," Sawyer said. He wants to unite video game designers with doctors who can help design the games. The multi-billion dollar video game industry is "a constant Darwinian innovation," Sawyer said, and he hopes to harness that.

The most notable example of the marriage of health and video games came from the meeting of a software designer and an eight-year old Leukemia patient. Ben Duskin, through the Make-a-Wish foundation (search), contacted programmer Eric Johnson. Playing video games had helped distract Duskin from his painful treatments, and he wanted a game to help other kids.

The result of their six-month collaboration was "Ben's Game," (search) in which the hero, armed with an arsenal of health, medicine and attitude, skates around a stylized field of cells on a rocket powered surfboard and does battle with monsters representing the side effects of chemotherapy (search). Made with a budget of $87— $38 of which went for a gallon and a half of limeade — and the support of Johnson's employer, Lucasarts (search), the video game wing of George Lucas' entertainment empire, Johnson said the free game was downloaded almost 200,000 times in the first 18 months.

Bruce E. Jarrell, vice dean for academic affairs at University of Maryland's medical school, hopes companies with more resources at their disposal than limeade will decide to develop games for medical use.

"Look at the audience for medical games," Jarrell said. "It's not just medical students. It’s the world."

Games like "Ben's Game" are entertaining, said Jarrett, but he would like to see the kind of deeper knowledge base that would make the games more worthwhile. While simulations will never replace real life experience, Jarrell said teaching students to, for example, put a breathing tube in a patient on a computer first, will give them the knowledge they need when they have to do it for the first time.

Hunt Valley-based Breakaway Games has taken the "Ben's Game" concept a step further to create a game to distract children who are in constant pain.

The result of the company's collaboration with the Believe in Tomorrow National Children's Foundation (search) is "Free Dive," an undersea diving game in which the player navigates a realistic undersea world, finding treasure chests, photographing them, and sending their location to salvage divers. The game's pain-relieving properties are currently being studied by psychologists with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"Free Dive" designer Paul Weaver came to the company from the commercial gaming world — his old job was designing for Ion Storm, a now defunct company specializing in first-person shooters like "Deus Ex 2: Invisible War" and "Thief: Deadly Shadows."

Weaver said current game systems allow the use of "full, 3-D environments and real, serious applications," and he's thrilled to be able to use his talent to help critically ill children.

Of course, video game designers will be video game designers. Weaver admits that "Free Dive" contains a hidden, but "not too scary," shark in the otherwise peaceful undersea kingdom. And, he says, he is currently in talks for a new game with the United States Navy. The subject of killer zombies has been raised — by the Navy.

The Capital News Service contributed to this report.