picture 10.pngBURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Computer gaming often conjures up images of slackers so engrossed in a virtual world that they harm their health by skipping meals and exercise, spending endless hours with their eyes glued to the screen and their hands clicking away.

At Champlain College and other academic institutions around the country, designers are looking for a better role to play, developing games aimed at helping people improve their health in a variety of ways, be it getting diabetics to eat right or leading Parkinson’s patients through rehabilitation.

Amanda Crispel, program director of game design, game art and animation at Champlain and CEO of a startup company, Hoozinga Game Media, is working with the Vermont Health Department to promote a new game intended to help smokers quit.

“Khemia,” which is Latin for “alchemy,” is designed to give smokers looking to kick the habit something to do with their minds and hands for the five to ten minutes a cigarette craving typically lasts, Crispel said.

“It’s behavioral modification,” she said. “You have set up a behavioral pattern, a set of neurons that says when this happens, that happens.”

“Khemia” is designed to disrupt the pattern associated with smoking and, in conjunction with other tools such as nicotine gum, reduce those cravings over time.

The game itself is fairly simple and involves shooting at targets. It comes embedded in a website whose theme is quitting tobacco.

The Vermont effort was reported previously by The Burlington Free Press.

A similar effort is under way in New York City, at Columbia University’s Teachers College, where a team including a professor and students has developed a smoking cessation game for mobile devices like the iPhone. Players manipulate activity on the screen by breathing into the device's microphone; the breathing aspect is designed to mimic smoking.

Debra Lieberman, a researcher at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said computer games can be valuable tools for addressing health problems but emphasized that they need to be backed by strong research — both as they are being designed and during follow-up to see how well they are working.

Lieberman directs the Health Games Research program at UCSB and is administering $4 million in grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to researchers around the country. One of the grants, for $150,000, went to the Columbia project.

A computer game that demands active participation can create a psychological phenomenon called “flow,” which her company’s website describes as “an intense state of immersive concentration in which the mind is completely absorbed in the task at hand.”

The result is “a wide-open channel to the brain,” Crispel said.

But she cautioned smokers against trading their tobacco addictions for computer-game addictions, which she says some Champlain students have done.

“Is it possible for someone to transfer their addiction (from tobacco) onto this game? Yes, it’s possible,“ Crispel said.

Columbia’s Kinzer, though, said trading a tobacco habit for a computer-game addiction isn’t the worst idea. “You can die from smoking,“ he said.