Audio games to help with hearing loss

How would you make a game of beeps that people will play for the rest of their lives?

On Tuesday 2010-06-22 I visited the National Biomedical Research Unit in Hearing (NBRUH) at the invitation of Nicolas Van Labeke. The unit is doing some very interesting work using sound games to help people cope with hearing loss and tinnitus. On the day I was the sole representative of the games industry!

A child playing the hearing training game, Star

A girl using the Star software

They’ve developed a game-like program called “Star” that plays three pure tones and challenges the player to find the odd one out. As the player progresses, the game becomes harder. They’ve gathered evidence that this is helping people.  (Results not yet published, so I can’t give you references yet.) It does not “repair” hearing, but it does improve hearing performance in tests, and users report improvements in their everyday lives. The training is helping people make use of the hearing they have.

The day was mostly about how they can take this kind of training beyond the laboratory and make something that people will use regularly for the rest of their lives. Naturally, it’s not pure entertainment. Unlike a game, the people using the software are not just motivated by the pleasure of using it. They’re gaining a noticeable benefit. But still, people get bored and lazy and stop doing things that are good for them.

This is quite a challenge! How do you make a game that someone will play for a few minutes each day, not just for a week, but forever? And what’s more, its core mechanic is listening to beeps!

A chording keyboard used for transcription for the deaf

Keyboard used for live transcription of the meeting

One of the most interesting points for me was the tension between scientific evidence-based medicine and making something that will actually get used. The academic goal is to produce papers based on solid evidence gathered using proper scientific methods. But of course that means that the design of the “game” is very stark. Intuitively, it seems to me that other, much more fun forms of audio training would help people just as much. We tend to deride Brain Training and Wii Fit for being unscientific, but I bet they do people good. So how far can we stray from the pure, proven beeping exercise and stay ethical? Where do we cross the line in to quackery?

My way out of this dilemma comes from the goals of NBRUH itself, as explained by its executive directory, Dr. Heather Fortnum, at the start of the day. It’s all about alleviating the burden of deafness. Perhaps if people say their burden is lessened, that’s all we need to know. And if our audio games are placebos, does it matter? As long as we reduce the suffering. And if our placebos are based on scientifically proven methods, and therefore have a chance of doing something real as well, then all the better.

But what about the game. Do you have ideas to make spot-the-beep-difference fun and enjoyable? And would they get people to play for years?

I’ll reveal what we came up with in a later post.

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