updated 5/29/2008 5:31:27 PM ET 2008-05-29T21:31:27

Why fight the proliferation of video games if you can use them to improve health in the U.S.?

Health researchers are looking at ways that people's obsession with video games might be put to good use. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced Thursday it will give a dozen research teams up to $200,000 each for studies lasting one to two years.

The projects will measure the effects of playing video games on the young and old. For example:

  • Researchers at Cornell University will study how a mobile phone game rewarding healthy eating and exercise will influence children's behavior.
  • Researchers at the University of Florida will monitor how playing Playstation 2's "Crazy Taxi" affects perception in the elderly.
  • Researchers at the University of South Carolina will investigate the potential for using video games such as Wii and EyeToy to help people recover their motor skills after experiencing a stroke.

For better or worse, video games teach through reinforcement. What health researchers want to do is find ways to reinforce healthy behaviors instead of unhealthy ones.

"A good game, or a game where you could actually learn some skills or develop some self-confidence could displace some of the more time-wasting video games that are out there. That could be a win-win in many ways," said Debra Lieberman of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who oversees the university's health games research.

Video games are often seen as the purview of the young, but several of the projects will investigate how adults can benefit. For example, at Union College in New York, researchers will monitor how participating on a virtual cycling team influences exercise behaviors and health outcomes for people age 50 and older.

"The neat thing about a video game is that it involves a challenge to reach a goal. That's why we get hooked on games. That's why we love to play them," Lieberman said. "We're always striving to do better and better."

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