New Video Game Helps Brain-Injury Patients Recover
Blue Marble Game Company makes 'neurogames,' games designed to treat various medical conditions.
CREDIT: Blue Marble Game Company
Fun and games have a real-world medical benefit with upcoming iOS game "The Treasure of Bell Island" by California-based studio Blue Marble Game Company. It was designed specifically to help people with mild traumatic brain injury, or injuries caused by bumps or blows to the head that affect the brain but aren't life-threatening.
The game is an assessment tool as well as an intervention tool. On the assessment side, "The Treasure of Bell Island" gathers players' scores and other data and draws conclusions about their brain health. On the intervention side, it can also help players recover.
"[After] someone is initially injured, there is a period where we want the brain to be quiet ... [where] we don't want them to watch TV, play video games or read, " said Sheryl Flynn, Blue Marble's CEO and a former physical therapist. After that period, some patients can begin returning to normal activities. For those who continue to feel pain, disorientation and other symptoms, further treatment may be necessary, and this is where "Bell Island" is introduced. [See also: Brain Tease: The Tantalizing Challenge of Mapping the Mind]
The game's premise is that the player and five other characters have crash-landed on an uninhabited island. To survive, the player uses the characters, who all have various skills, to perform activities such as hunting animals for food, constructing shelters and exploring the surroundings.
Players are scored based on how well they perform these activities. The game also records other aspects of player behavior beyond scoring. For example, people with mild traumatic brain damage are often easily distracted. So throughout the game, images unrelated to the current task might pop up in the game's background, and the game will record whether players tapped on these distractions or kept their focus on the task at hand.
Scores and other important data are recorded via a platform called Deep Ocean, also developed by Blue Marble. Deep Ocean provides a sort of back-end analytical component to "Bell Island," which physicians and therapists can then view in order to determine their patients' progress.
So, for example, if a doctor wished to prescribe "Treasure of Bell Island" to a patient, the patient would download the game and give the doctor access to their scores. The doctor is then able to view those scores via the Deep Ocean program installed on his own computer. [See also: Playing This Game Will Sharpen Your Mind]
Many of the game's components, such as hunting and exploring, have time limits that grow shorter and shorter as the game progresses. This addresses a particular need that brain trauma patients have. Flynn said people recovering from brain trauma often struggle with timed tasks because they are unable to divide their attention between the task and the timer, and they become flustered.
"Treasure of Bell Island" was designed for those who have mild traumatic brain trauma, but there's a special focus on use for troops. The game's research and development was funded by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, and military representatives offered feedback on the game throughout the course of its development.
"We did a lot of research on what might be interesting to the military," Flynn said, explaining that Blue Marble had to find a narrative balance. The story had to be interesting and relevant to military players, but it also had to avoid any possible triggers for players suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
For example, the military asked Blue Marble to design the game's titular island with as little sand as possible, because sandy landscapes too closely recall veterans' experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Bell Island" is currently in the final development stage and, pending approval from the Apple App store, will be available on iOS devices for recreational or medical use later this year.
The game falls under the fast-growing category of "neurogames," or games designed to teach, monitor or otherwise engage with players' cognitive function. Blue Marble Game Company participated in the first-ever NeuroGaming conference in San Francisco this past May, and will also be part of the ninth annual Games for Health conference starting this week (June 24) in Boston.
Meanwhile, Blue Marble has begun work on another neurogame. Called "Zoezi Park," this game is designed to prevent falls in people 65 and older, an age where even a minor accident can be devastating. The game uses the Xbox Kinect to lead people through a series of strengthening, balancing and mindfulness exercises.
"Zoezi Park" is currently fundraising on WhenYouWish.com, a Kickstarter-like platform that focuses on crowdfunding for business pitches.