11 March 2019

Meet our team of 'Healthy play, better coping'

Remco Veltkamp: "Games can encourage children to play more often, including outside"

Remco Veltkamp, Professor of Interaction Technology in the Informatics department, is working on ‘Games for Good’. These are game and media technologies that, in whatever domain, provide a social benefit, whether through imagery, music, 3D applications or interactive games. As guiding force behind the UU focus area Game Research, the Dynamics of Youth theme ‘Healthy play, better coping’ is right up Veltkamp’s alley.

Remco Veltkamp
Prof.dr. Remco Veltkamp

Remco views his contribution in terms of the technical aspect of the ‘Healthy play, better coping' theme. "My favourite bit is the multidisciplinary aspect – the overlap with clinical practice at the Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital and the outside world. Recently, for instance, we sat down with Jantje Beton (an organisation that promotes play on behalf of all children in the Netherlands). These days, they’re looking further than just playgrounds: they’re interested in the technology-enhanced playgrounds of the future. Such future play areas would involve things like images projected on the ground and instruments for quantifying children’s movements."

Games make it possible to collect all kinds of data!

Collecting gaming data

In short: data collection during play, which is a key principle for Remco’s team. He gained valuable experience with his music app ‘Hooked’. "Music influences your mood and can affect your emotional state. What I want to know is, which aspects of music are responsible for such a pronounced effect. Games make it possible to collect all kinds of data! And then once you analyse it, you’ll have learned something about how music works."

"If we want games like that, we’re going to have to design them ourselves – regular games simply aren’t equipped for that purpose. They’re not 'games for good'"

Collecting data through gaming will feature in ‘Healthy play, better coping’ as well. Remco’s team intends to design multiple game environments in order to map out different aspects of social cognitive development in children, both chronically ill and well. This will open the door to creating a ‘steering game’ that will rely on the application of persuasive techniques and other tools. Remco: ‘If we want games like that, we’re going to have to design them ourselves – regular games simply aren’t equipped for that purpose. They’re not “games for good”. Collecting data in a game itself is something that has never been done before.’

A number of prototypes have been developed to date. One of these is a location-based game: ‘Players walk around with their smartphones and are invited to go to different places and move around. We are currently in the phase of trying to decide what such a game should look like.’

Promoting something good

According to Remco, developing games and encouraging play serves two purposes. "First of all, we know that play is important and beneficial for both humans and animals – so encouraging play is always a good thing. Second: play and games can directly promote children’s social development." And for what it’s worth, Remco doesn’t view computer/console gaming and playing outside as rival pursuits. Quite the contrary, fact. "Online games can actually encourage children to play more often, which includes playing outdoors. A game can serve as a safe space for paying compliments and rewarding a player."

"We make games on behalf of specific clients; I don’t really have a preference for a certain field. In this case, it’s the healthcare sector, but I’m also on the diversity committee. We don’t have very many female students here in Informatics, and UU as a whole is struggling to increase the number of women in higher positions as well. Part of that has to do with preconceived notions; I’d like to make a game that both shines a light on those prejudices and encourages the player to change their behaviour."

Players walk around with their smartphones and are invited to go to different places and move around.

One of the first serious games, made for the medical field years ago, was a training simulator aimed at teaching pharmacy students to talk with patients. That system, ‘Communicate’ (with which Remco was not involved), was also deployed as a training tool to help physicians communicate with patients more effectively. "We recently developed a version for older patients that will allow them to better prepare for a conversation with a doctor. It’s still a bit dull at the moment, however, so we’re planning to make it more playful."

Pong

So how playful is Remco himself? "I was born in 1963, so the first computer game I played was probably Pong. Which, as it happens, is the first programming assignment we give our first-year students: make a “pong” game! I’ve never been a particularly avid gamer myself; once I figured out how it worked, I tended to lose interest. Sports? More or less the same story. As soon as I mastered the rules and techniques – whether it was fencing, tennis or football – I was ready to be on to the next thing."

Research theme Dynamics of Youth

If you want to tackle social problems, it would be best to start with children. The Utrecht-based research theme Dynamics of Youth invests in a resilient youth. Academics from all fields collaborate in order to learn to better understand child development. How can we help children and youngsters to grow and flourish in our rapidly changing society?​