Breathing Video Games

Breathing Video Games

Kids with cystic fibrosis are trying a video game-based breathing therapy.


Blowing at video games. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Many kids with cystic fibrosis, a chronic lung disease, do a kind of breathing therapy called "huffing"—a series of sharp exhales to clear their airways. It's meant to be done several times a day, but kids get bored with it and slack off. So University of Vermont pediatric neurologist Peter Bingham and game design students at Champlain College adapted it into two different video games.

And one game, you breathe, you do a forced exhalation, to charge up a racecar, and it drives the car around the track.

In the other game, you're spraying slime off of exotic animals from a helicopter. Bingham's team found that kids' lung function improved when they played the game for two to four weeks, but not when they huffed on a similar game-free apparatus. Now they'll try to find out if the game makes kids more diligent about huffing at home. I'm Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.

Making Sense of the Research

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited genetic disease that affects the entire body, but one of its major symptoms is difficulty breathing. Everybody's lungs and airways get a little blocked with mucus from time to time. But for patients with CF, it happens constantly, and it's potentially life-threatening. In order to clear their airways, patients perform a kind of sharp exhale called huffing several times a day. As you can imagine, this gets old fast, and preteens and adolescents are especially prone to falling off their hufffing routine.

So, these researchers decided to make huffing more fun, by developing video games controlled partly by huffing into a tube. The researchers started by surveying kids about what types of video games they like to play, and tried to design games that fit the most popular interests. (Driving games, for example, scored high on the list.) They also asked questions about specific aspects of game playing, to make sure the games worked like the kids' favorites. 

Then came the experiment. It may seem simple: Compare kids huffing on the video game to kids huffing the old-fashioned way. But there were a number of challenges in designing this study, not all of which could be solved the first time out. First of all, they had to measure the kids' success over a period of time, not just in one sitting. Second, there were two different ways of measuring success: whether the kids huffed more often when they played the video game, and whether the kids had better lung function after playing the game than after huffing normally. 

Finally, there's the question of what "huffing normally" would mean. In real life, kids with CF just have to remember to do their huffing exercises on their own several times per day, with no special equipment. However, according to the accepted scientific practice, the control condition (in which the treatment being tested isn't used) should be just like the experimental condition (in which the treatment is used), except for the thing being tested. In a drug trial, for example, control patients are often given fake pills that look exactly like the real ones, on the same schedule as those getting the real pills, and neither group knows if they're getting the real thing or not.

In this case, the video game is like the real drug—it's a new treatment that scientists want to know if it works. However, in order to make the conditions as close as possible, the researchers had to have the control group huff into the same machine as the video game group, except in the control group, the video game wasn't turned on. Matching these conditions makes it less likely that something other than the video game could have an effect—for example, that just huffing into that tube gets better results than huffing alone. On the other hand, huffing into the machine isn't at all like what CF patients usually do. And the real question is whether the huffing video games get better results then huffing solo. So, their challenge is to design a study that compares these two conditions while still controlling as many other factors as possible.

Now try and answer these questions:

  1. What is "huffing"? Why do CF patients need to do it?
  2. What were the fundamental questions in this experiment?
  3. One result was that kids' lung function improved over the time period in which they played the video game as compared to the time they didn't. How does the control condition (kids huffing into the same machine with no video game) make that result more convincing?
  4. How did that same control condition make it hard to tell whether the video game would make kids perform the huffing exercise as often as they should?

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