alex cha

Student’s Video Game Puts Parkinson’s Patients in Driver’s Seat

When you design a video game for recreational purposes, understanding your audience is important. When creating a game to use in physical therapy, audience is beyond important. Lives and well-being are at stake.

Alex Cha, who just completed American University’s Master of Arts in Game Design program, created “Cardio Copter” as part of a semester-long project in the “Designing Health Games” course at AU. Combined with Cha’s undergraduate background in psychology and biology, tutelage from professor Robert Hone helped Cha bring his concept to reality. That concept? A spin cycle-based gaming therapy in which Parkinson’s disease patients use their pedaling to guide a helicopter through a virtual city.

The helicopter drops cargo onto a building and fireworks explode.In “Cardio Copter,” the altitude of the helicopter is controlled by the speed of the pedals. Players must fly their helicopter over buildings while collecting diamonds and offloading them atop those buildings to boosts the point total and increases the spin-cycle resistance. Players can adjust the difficulty of the challenge themselves by choosing how many diamonds must be collected before releasing them.

In essence, “Cardio Copter” was built atop the tenets of J.L. Alberts’s well-known study about strenuous, “forced” physical activity producing greater symptomatic improvement than voluntary activity. Alberts had placed patients with Parkinson’s disease on a tandem bicycle with a researcher, allowing the researcher to modulate the level of intensity patients would face during rehabilitation sessions to create a challenge that was neither too easy nor too hard.

“By including this adaptive system within an engaging game, people with Parkinson’s can get the same kind of exercise that patients received in the Alberts study, in the comfort of their own home–and without the need for a clinical partner,” said Cha, who was encouraged by Hone to submit “Cardio Copter” to the Games4Health contest. Cha’s game earned the Best Commercialization Video Award.

Designing a health-related game requires careful attention to the audience, Cha noted. With “Cardio Copter,” simply participating in the game is a challenge for its physically challenged players. Thus, it must be easy to understand and without too many surprises.

The effectiveness of health games is due in part to their intrinsic motivating factors, such as personal well-being. “Cardio Copter” directly links points with symptomatic improvements.

“Ultimately, racking up more points could mean living a healthier, more active life,” Cha said.

Cha hopes to eventually work as part of a small, independent team of game developers/designers “creating games that use their design–not traditional, didactic language–as a lens to communicate how we see the world.”

Cha also envisions the world fully embracing game-based therapies someday.

“I hope to see patients fully engaged with the therapy process and benefitting from the immense library of data tracking and feedback that games can deliver,” Cha said.

The idea of active rather than passive learning is a major factor in Cha’s passion for persuasive play. As a child, he saw how the traditional classroom lecture system as too restrictive.

“Video games often took a vow of silence, teaching wordlessly with some expectations that the player was intelligent and eager to keep up,” he said. “They made learning exciting and effortless. As designers, it is our job to create stages that produce conditions that are favorable for the messages we want to express. But ultimately, we must relinquish authorial control to our players.”

In AU’s Game Lab, Cha has had opportunities to express his passion, talents and skills–and to learn from the experienced professional game designers. Also, through the Game Lab’s Game Studio, he has worked with a variety of organizations including the Educational Testing Service and the National Institute of Mental Health.

During summer programs at AU, Cha has even taught and shared his love of game development with students enrolled in his “Game Design in Unity 5” class.

“All in all, AU has made it easier to surround my life with games. Who wouldn’t love that?” he said.

If the video above does not work, please check out the trailer for Alex Cha’s game here on Youtube.

Learn more about how students and professors are changing the world through the American University Game Lab.

2 replies
  1. Abhijeet Pratap says:

    Alex’ work is really inspiring. Video Games for health is a great idea and if they are effective in case of Parkinson’s patients, this is something really motivating for his audience. Inspiring article!!


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