Thursday evening at Games For Change Festival 2018, Doctor Hannah Kirk hosted the panel “Can Game-Based Training Programs Support Childhood Development?” This panel concerned clinically inattentive children (such as children who have ADHD or autism), and the question of whether videogames can be just as effective as helping treat inattentiveness as traditionally-prescribed medication, if not moreso.

Very early on, Kirk gave a basic rundown of what cognitive training programs are and how they work. Game-based training programs involve repeating exercises with training for specific skills in mind. These programs are built on principles of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and respond to new mental challenges and information. This sort of training is most beneficial in the early years of life–before age eight–though it’s possible to hone neuroplasticity throughout life. In fact, most programs currently focus on adults or kids over eight.

So, what is best to train? Kirk showed a series of numbers to the crowd and asked us to repeat the numbers we had seen in order, an easy enough task and simple example of short-term memory. She then asked certain members of the audience to read the numbers back in reverse order: a simple example of working memory, which is taking information and doing something new with it. Inattentiveness can interfere with absorbing information, and thus makes it harder to use it in the “working memory” sense.

At this time, the common intervention method for the forms inattentiveness may take place is the prescription of medication such as Ritalin. The short-term effects of this seem positive, but there isn’t currently a lot known about the long-term effects. Game-based training in the lines that Kirk suggested has the potential to be a safer alternative to such medicine, and with the proliferation of mobile items like tablets and phones, it may be easier than ever to obtain the necessary software and get it into the hands of kids who would benefit.

Kirk helped create TALI Train, which is a touch-based game that follows the principles she described at the start of her panel. At this point in her panel, Kirk began to talk more about TALI Train and its accompanying program, as well as the testing it has undergone so far.

The TALI program should occur five times a week, for a total of 25 sessions. Obviously, compliance is necessary for positive results–a kid won’t want to play a game multiple times if they’re not enjoying it, and being forced to do it anyways won’t have positive results, either.

Screenshots from just a few of the TALI Train games and what they help with. Photo courtesy of Monash University.

Each session is only four minutes long, and each one focuses on different core aspects of attention. Some of these aspects are selective attention, or, filtering out unnecessary information, concentration, and response inhibition, or, impulse control. Kirk showed off a few of the different sessions: one focus-based session involved children selecting the correct treasure chest, even as more stimuli appears around it that may be more intriguing. There was also some footage from the inhibition sessions, where a child is expected to select a specific kind of animal when it is revealed and resist the urge to impulsively click whatever animal is shown at a certain time. These challenges increase and decrease depending on how a child is performing.

Some general results were that “gamifying” training increased child engagement which can signal the release of dopamine, a chemical in the brain associated with happiness and learning. Children learn better when they’re happy! The response from parents and Australian health boards suggest positive results, though research continues.

Kirk was also upfront on areas that can be improved on, such as the fact that current games in the program don’t translate to real-life situations well, concerns about screen time (currently, the program only allows a total of 20 minutes per day of play time), and concerns that kids will be less responsive to non-game-based methods. This program will most likely not be a permanent fix for inattention and should not be taken as a miracle cure, but it will be able to help. The long-term effects have to be researched more as well.

TALI Train has gone through several rounds of clinical trials and it has been approved as a registered provider by the National Disability Insurance Agency in Australia, where TALI Health is based out of. For more information on TALI Train, please check out TALI Health’s website.

For more information on other events offered at Games For Change, check out its programming schedule and our other related articles below. We were there for all three days, so please continue checking n3rdabl3 for more on Games For Change Festival 2018!

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