One of the hardest parts of treating cystic fibrosis in children is convincing them to perform tedious breathing exercises required to keep airways clear. However, a new study that applies gamification techniques to cystic-fibrosis treatment indicates that specially made video games not only get children to perform breathing exercises--they also improves breathing performance when not playing games.
The study, led by Dr. Peter Bingham of the University of Vermont and Fletcher Allen Health Care , was released at the annual Pediatric Academic Societies conference in Denver on April 30. According to the abstract , breathing techniques practiced in the video games appear to have been used in the days and weeks after the game was played--leading to improved pulmonary function. Both games used a digital spirometer for a game controller.
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that leads to the build-up of thick mucus in the lungs and progressive disability. Conventional physiotherapy techniques  for cystic fibrosis involve breathing exercises that are often uncomfortable, time-consuming and boring for children.
Two games were created as part of the study. The first game was a breath-controlled racer, which had players breathing in order to maintain a race car's speed, with special exercises being used to acquire gas tanks and wash the car. In the second game, players' breath movements were used to hunt for treasure in a world where animals are covered in slime; when players encountered slime-covered animals, they were required to blow the slime off them to earn additional treasure.
Applying gamification techniques and video games to medical treatment is nothing new. Specialized computer and video games have been on the market for years and entire conferences have taken place  devoted to them. However, the use of video games for treatment of cystic fibrosis has been relatively limited and restricted to a hospital environment.
The two games in the study were designed for take-home use. Both games used digital spirometers--devices that measure the speed and quantity of breath--as controllers and were designed to play on home computers. The games were developed in collaboration with the Game Design program at Vermont's Champlain College; students interviewed children with cystic fibrosis about their game-playing habits and preferences and the games were custom-created based on the feedback.
According to Bingham, the idea for the study came about in collaboration with the University of Vermont's Jason Bates. Bingham told Fast Company that “kids were avid to play the games. They only played them for a few minutes, but it was long enough to make an improvement in their breathing.”
In the study, children who bought the computer games home with them were encouraged to play at will over a two-to-four week period and then spent an identical period doing breathing exercises with a digital spirometer, sans-games. Children who played the games had a significant improvement in adherence to their breathing exercise regime. Most interestingly of all, they also showed an improved ability to take deep breaths after playing video games that did not appear in the control period at all. According to Bingham, “We aren't sure why that improvement happened,but it could be that the player's ability to carry out the vital capacity test improved simply because they were practicing this skill more often, and not because of an actual improvement in their lungs.”
One out of every 3,200 children worldwide is born with cystic fibrosis.
[Images courtesy Fletcher Allen Health Care]