New Yale lab will use virtual reality games to reduce risks in teens

The goal of the lab is to develop and test VR games for health education and behavioral intervention in youth and young adults.
A female student utilizing a virtual reality device.

Yale’s Center for Health & Learning Games will establish a new lab, play4REAL, with a gift from Oculus, a Facebook-owned technology company specializing in Virtual Reality (VR) hardware and software products. The goal of this innovative lab is to develop and test VR games for health education and behavioral intervention in youth and young adults.

The play4REAL lab will build on the success of the center’s play2PREVENT (p2P) lab, which uses videogame play to promote health and reduce risky behavior among youth and young adults. The new lab’s director, research scientist Kimberly Hieftje, will take the work of the existing lab to the next dimension — literally.

With the support from Oculus, play4REAL will develop a virtual reality version of a game designed to educate teens about tobacco product use, PlayFoward: smokeSCREEN. In collaboration with game prototyping company, PreviewLabs, play4REAL will create smokeSCREEN VR, focusing on e-cigarettes.

There’s a lot of work being done with VR for general education purposes, but there’s not a lot of work being done with VR for health education and behavioral intervention,” Hieftje said. Health interventions are a novel application for VR, she noted, and a health intervention that deals specifically with e-cigarettes is critical given their popularity with teens.

Oculus has committed to fund the development of smokeSCREEN VR, the videogame intervention prototype; the pilot-testing of smokeSCREEN VR with young adolescents; and the exploration of the use of VR in influencing social pressure and social norms.

We will leverage VR technology to create a more realistic simulation of peer pressure and situational decision making,” said Hieftje. The immersive nature of VR will allow the play4REAL lab to be creative and conceptualize the many ways a tool like VR can be used to realistically simulate life for teens.

With VR, as a player, you get much more of a point-of-view experience. You actually feel like you’re in the environment,” she said. “We are asking ourselves what we can do to use VR to enhance the feeling of social pressure in a scenario involving e-cigarette use. Could we change the volume of the background noise? Could we simulate your heart pounding?”

Together with PreviewLabs, play4REAL will build the prototype of smokeSCREEN VR and move quickly towards testing it on young adolescents, gathering data to measure impact on health and health education outcomes.

For Hieftje, although the means are new, the desired end is the same. “It’s all great work inside the lab, but bringing it to the community is always the end goal,” she said. “We will partner with the New Haven Public Schools to test smokeSCREEN VR. Most likely, this will also be the first experience those students have with VR in any context.”

The play4REAL lab will live in the Center for Health & Learning Games’ new space at 2 Church St. South. Hieftje is painting half of the walls in the VR lab green, so that the team will be able to use green-screen technology to place the adolescents who are using the VR in the VR environment for others to watch. “For behavioral intervention, we know there’s also value in watching peers engage in risky situations, so we wanted to make it possible for other adolescents to watch their peers engage in our simulation,” she said.

Hieftje and her colleagues hope that if the e-cigarette simulation proves to affect behavior positively, there will be more health intervention applications for this technology. “We’d love to create programs in VR for reducing risky sexual behaviors and risks associated with alcohol and other drug use.”

The hope, she said, is that one day, all the successful games that play4REAL produces at Yale and tests in New Haven will be ready for posting at an online store, where players around the world will benefit from these socially positive interventions incubated in the labs at Yale.

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