Most parents fret when their child stays glued to a video game or computer for hours, and they fret for good reason. The gaming industry has been built on violence and frenzied action. In one of the most popular series of games, Grand Theft Auto, players tear drivers out of their cars to mug them, and run over pedestrians.
What if electronic games could help children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) increase focus for tasks that they find boring?
They might. Parents, therapists, and educators can choose from several new games and devices on the market that may train distracted children or adults to pay more attention. Some connect the user's brain to the home computer through high-tech sensors and allow the person to control the action on the screen, not with a fast finger or a keyboard but with his brain waves. Call it joystick neurofeedback.
Using this method to improve concentration isn't a new idea. Therapists have used the technology for decades. Some games trace their development to National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) technology that measures the brain waves of pilots as they use flight simulators. Today, experts in psychology and technology are finding new ways to link the brain with a computer, and manufacturers are creating software and equipment designed for home users.
Manufacturers and experts agree that the games are only a tool to train a child to pay attention in distracted children, not a treatment for ADHD. Medication and behavior therapy is the gold standard for improving symptoms of the condition.
"The games have the potential to increase attention stamina," says Rohn Kessler, Ph.D., of Boca Raton, Florida, who works with children with attention deficit. "They aren't a quick fix or a one-step solution, but I have seen distracted kids increase their ability to focus."
ADDitude screened a few of the more intriguing games. Here's what we found.
With Captain's Log, you can become the captain of your own brain, instead of letting impulses and distractions take you off course.
Therapists and educators have used Captain's Log to help children and adults with ADHD and other cognitive challenges since 1985. The software is now used in all 50 states and 75 foreign countries, according to the manufacturer, BrainTrain of Richmond, Virginia.
BrainTrain calls Captain's Log a "computerized mental gym," which works with any standard computer-control device, like a mouse or a keyboard, or with a joystick or game controller. With 50 different programs and over 2000 different exercises, Captain's Log offers a vast variety of options for helping some students improve concentration, memory, and self-control.
HOW IT WORKS: A child or adult chooses which games he wants to play based on his needs, whether it be improving his inattention or controlling impulsive tendencies. Once the user selects his preference, a selection of games will pop up on the screen. You might be required to match two cards from memory or two similarly colored animals. The pace and length of the games are varied, and visual and audio distractions are thrown in to increase the challenge. The program advances to the next level automatically when the student has mastered the previous level. Captain's Log generates detailed reports so that professionals or parents can trace a student's progress, and it produces certificates as rewards for students as they improve.
Captain's Log developer Joseph Sandford, a psychologist with a computer programming background, originally created the software to help patients who had traumatic brain injury. Therapists soon realized that it may increase attention in people with ADHD.
For more information, log on to braintrain.com. Joining their mailing list can get you 25 percent off your first purchase.
Peter Freer was frustrated in trying to help his students overcome attention problems. Combining his teaching experience with his background in educational technology, Freer created Play Attention, a system that enables children and adults with ADHD to connect their brain waves directly to a home computer to hone their ability to stay focused.
"They can actually see what's happening to their brain waves as it occurs," says Freer, CEO of Unique Logic + Technology, the Asheville, North Carolina, manufacturer of the game.
HOW IT WORKS: The user puts on an armband embedded with sensors and learns to control the action on the screen with his brain signals. In Attention Stamina, for instance, the player uses his focus to make a dolphin swim to the bottom of the ocean, avoiding obstacles along the way. Another exercise requires a player to load a truck in less than five minutes — without getting distracted. A challenging exercise involves sitting at the controls of a spaceship, deflecting the white asteroids that are flying toward it. This helps develop discriminatory processing and impulse control.
While a teacher, therapist, or coach can only describe what focus feels like to someone with ADHD, Play Attention lets the user experience what being attentive actually feels like.
A student can even play the game while doing homework. Wearing the armband and choosing, say, the dolphin game, the student can do an assignment and gauge his attention level by looking at how many gold coins the dolphin collected over time.
For more information, log on to playattention.com. A free demo CD is available.
Sitting behind the wheel of a car can be a dangerous place for someone with impulsive or inattentive behavior, especially a teenage driver without much experience. SmartDriver Plus helps any driver, or future driver, with focus problems to keep his thoughts on the road.
The game works with a USB steering wheel and pedal set that plugs into your computer. "The kids love SmartDriver Plus because they get to drive," says Joseph Sandford, who created the game. Unlike the typical driving video game, SmartDriver Plus requires patience and responsibility, not a love of hairpin turns. "There are stretches where you have to stay under the speed limit."
HOW IT WORKS: The game isn't a driving simulator - you "drive" the car from outside of the car as in a typical video game, not from inside it - but you must follow the rules of the road and heed speed limits, traffic lights, and other vehicles. Like Captain's Log, SmartDriver adds enough lights and sounds to keep a young user interested.
For more information, log on to braintrain.com. Financing options are available.
Instead of designing games for building concentration skills, the S.M.A.R.T BrainGames system converts any home video or computer game into a neurofeedback device.
Using new technology developed by NASA, the S.M.A.R.T. ("Self Mastery and Regulation Training") BrainGames system includes a state-of-the-art, wireless, handheld game controller. It looks and works like any other game controller, with one exception - it receives brain wave signals from a headset worn by the player.
HOW IT WORKS: The headset tracks the frequency of the user's brain waves while he plays. When the player exhibits low-frequency patterns during, say, a car race at the track, his car slows and other cars pass him. That gets his attention, so he concentrates, producing higher-frequency brain waves. His car then speeds up - positive reinforcement for his cerebral change. The idea is that the higher-frequency pattern will continue even after kids stop playing the game.
NASA's tests of the technology showed that it works about as well as traditional biofeedback equipment used in clinics, but with an important twist - children like it better.
"The main difference we see between the groups is motivation - the children in the video game group enjoy the sessions more, and it's easier for parents to get them to come to our clinic," said Olafur Palsson, Ph.D., of Eastern Virginia Medical School in Richmond, a co-inventor of the NASA system.
It may also encourage children to play G-rated video games, which work best with the system, says Lindsay Greco, a vice president at CyberLearning Technologies. "The games that don't work well are the shoot-'em-up, blood-and-guts kind, because there is poor forward motion," says Greco. Games that involve steady motion, like driving a car or flying an airplane, work best.
For more information, log on to smartbraingames.com.