ENC Health Currents: Local Researcher Developing Video Game For Kids With ADHD

Aug 1, 2018

Credit Rhett Butler/ECU News Services

Students across Eastern North Carolina will soon be in school.  Long hours in a classroom can be especially hard for children with attention deficit/ hyperactivity disorder.  One researcher at East Carolina University in Greenville is in the process of developing a video game to help kids with ADHD excel in the classroom.  


Video games, with their colorful graphics and exciting sounds, can keep most kids entertained for hours.  But children and adolescents with ADHD may actually benefit from a new extraterrestrial invasion game in development by ECU and Ohio University researchers.

“If we do our work right, the game will feel new, novel and at the same time very familiar.”

Dr. Brandon Schultz is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at ECU.

“We want them to be able to jump straight into the game and start playing without having to figure out too much about the game itself.  But it will be a mystery as they’re moving along.  Who are these aliens, what are they doing, why are they doing this? "

The three-year project is funded by a $1.4 million grant from the Federal Department of Education.  Schultz says their team is tasked with designing a video game that will help middle school students ages 11-14 learn how to manage ADHD symptoms.

“While they’re playing the game, they’re learning about really ADHD and a lot of the coping skills that we try to teach to typically help kids with ADHD do better in school and reduce some of the impairments associated with the disorder. And hopefully, if we do our jobs right, they’ll play the game and learn these skills without even realizing that they are learning these skills.”

ADHD is the most common developmental disorder among children and adolescents.  Almost 9.5% of U.S. children ages 2-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the latest figures from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study from 2016.  Some health organizations have that number closer to 5%.  Still, Professor of Psychology at Ohio University Dr. Steven Evans says many cases of ADHD go undiagnosed.     

“In fact, many of the most severe kids as well as more moderate and mild impairments never go to clinics or healthcare providers related to the problems pertaining to the disorder.  I think stigma has something to do with it, I think access to healthcare and family’s resources in terms of whether they have insurance, transportation, and value getting health care for those problems certianly play a role in whether they get diagnosed or not.”

In 1999, Evans spearheaded a collaborative program called Challenging Horizons, which is a school-based treatment program that helps students with ADHD perform tasks that can be difficult for them, like taking notes, keeping up with when assignments are due and improving organizational skills. He says the video game will incorporate similar types of interventions.

“One of the keys to being successful with addressing problems like disorganization and social functioning involves practicing skills over and over and over. And having a lot of repetition and a lot of performance feedback over an extended period of time are the real keys to response. And as a result of playing the game, your characters are going to need to demonstrate those skills repeatedly over time to succeed in their adventures.  So in a gameful way, children are going be practicing the very things they’re going to be working on to try to achieve at school.”

Video games are not only helpful for those with ADHD. They’ve also been used as a therapy for people with Parkinson’s Disease and Cerebral Palsy as wells as a treatment for depression and anxiety. ECU assistant professor Schultz, who is the lead researcher for the project, drew inspiration from video games that were created to help kids with cancer understand the nature of their disease, its side effects and how treatments work.

“And the studies done on that as long as 10 years ago showed that patients who went through those experiences actually adhered better to their treatment plan and understood what was happening better than kids who hadn’t been exposed to the game.”

Schultz says there’s three development phases for the video game for kids with ADHD.

“The game itself is only an idea on paper right now.  It’s a game design document, I think it’s like a 30-page document.”

In the first year, he says a design team at Ohio University will be developing a working prototype.  Next, they’ll hire three rounds of focus groups to test the game at ECU.

“We’re going to invite 25 local adolescents with ADHD to come in and participate.  They’ll play the game for roughly 45-minutes and then fill out some rating scales about the game and talk with us one-on-one about what they thought about the game.”

They’ll also conduct feasibility studies at E.B. Aycock Middle School in Greenville and Farmville Middle School.  Then, in year three, the game will be made available online for free.

“Kids can play this thing through a regular web browser so they can access it from home, they can access it from the classroom."

Teachers will be able to track each child’s game progress allowing them to create a plan for intervention for each individual student to apply the lessons learned in the video game to the real world. 

"Typically, kids with ADHD are a little reluctant, a little resistant to receive treatment for this and typically...they’ll feel a little singled out to be told they have a need that we’re trying to remediate.  So we want to make the game as ‘gamey’ as we can make it so very stealthily they’re learning something that they don’t even realize that they're learning."