[This may be the final Games For Health write-up from Kyle Orland and friends, but it's one of the more interesting ones - the concept of using a dance mat game to keep seniors fit is interesting in theory, and it's impressive that these folks are trying it.]

In this session from the recent Games for Health conference, Jeff Pepper, President and CEO of Touchtown, discussed his company's work in creating Dancetown - a PC-based dance game specifically aimed at older players and retirement homes, to give players regular exercise and reduce the risk of falling.

Touchtown is a 9-year old company out of Pittsburgh that was originally not a game company, but provided digital signage and TV to retirement homes. Two years ago, Pepper's daughter came home with Dance Dance Revolution and he "got hooked".

His daughter said 'Wouldn't it be great if your customers could do this?' But it seemed too hard for seniors, and Pepper thought "there's no way our customers would actually use this."

Study Findings

However, after an investment of 18 months on a study, with a team of over 40 people, five retirement homes on an advisory board, and the CMU Entertainment Technology Group helping out, he discovered that dance provides benefits over plain exercise.

It has benefits for balance, endurance, strength, agility, flexibility, locomotion, weight loss, and most importantly, reduces risk of falls for seniors.

The results of the study showed that 31 48-year-old or older women who played DDR 30 minutes twice a week lost up to 20 lbs. The more they weighed, the more they lost, and their blood pressure dropped up to 20 points.

"Traditional retirement home culture is bingo, birthdays and crafts." said Pepper, "Very traditional. Keep people occupied, but don't rock the boat. Nothing dramatic... they might hurt themselves! There's a resistance to doing anything out of the box. Existing fitness programs tend to be lame - chair exercises: get up, grab the back of the chair, lift your legs. No emotional investment... you do these exercises like you take medicine."

However, Pepper admitted that within a short period of time, the Wii has made a "tremendous" inroad into retirement homes. "Its lots of fun, and gets people moving," said Pepper, but warned "it has little impact on balance, strength, bone density, fall prevention, cardiovascular health. It's not really aerobic... you could do 500 baseball swings, and it's still not aerobic. Wii can lead to repetitive strain, too. Still, it's better than the chair exercise, and gets people used to combining computers with exercise."

DDR has a problem of a different sort: "Retirement homes experimented with DDR, but these games are not designed for seniors," explained Pepper. "Girls showing their belly buttons… It's a cultural mismatch. The whole style is designed for young people."

Thus Pepper came to the idea of taking the core concept of dance games, but to reinvent it so it would succeed in a retirement community, with, in particular, "Rather than trying to be as hard as possible, the idea is to be as fun as possible."

Dancetown Design

Pepper listed the many design requirements for Dancetown to appeal to, and be useful for, seniors:

- Senior-friendly visual design: Simpler background, high contrast text and graphics, and no eye candy to distract; a bouncing ball shows the beat for the deaf/hard of hearing.

- Senior-friendly music, but which must also appeal to all ages: "Tough to do," said Pepper. They used a selection of music from 1960-1975 that's universal: Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, show tunes. Older people like it, but kids also know it. There's also an assist mode, which audibly "claps" when players are supposed to step.

- Intergenerational play: "This doesn't occur with DDR much," Pepper said. With Dancetown, "Two people can dance at once, but they dance the same thing… Different difficulty levels, but scoring is balanced so that the easy player has an equal chance of winning. It's a fair competition."

- More difficulty levels: Easiest only has left and right inputs. Second adds the "up" pad. Four more difficulty levels have all four directions. The top level is "equivalent to hard in DDR."

- Safety: Sturdy, 3-sided PVC railings. The weight of pad holds the railing – "if you trip and fall, you won't hit the ground."

- Web component: "People who work in retirement communities expect a therapeutic value," expanded Pepper. "They like to be able to track outcomes. Dancetown lets you track performance in-game and in medical assessments." There's also online performance tracking, where you can compare to people in same retirement community, ZIP code, state, and so on. The next version will have virtual trophies as you progress, and online community features.

Although designed for seniors, Pepper stated that it "seems to appeal to everyone" and is looking at business opportunities with YMCAs, camps, schools and others.

The game is currently being researched by the Humana Innovations Center, looking at the feasibility of the game for the healthy (60+) senior population, and Pepper stated that all software development for Dancetown is considered completed.

The unit is already being used in "20 locations" with the next release "geared towards the mass market" for a summer release. It is to be marketed to 44,000 retirement homes starting in June, with a high volume rollout in fall.

Lessons

"My background is not game development but enterprise software," concluded Pepper. "My idea of building a game was the same as my idea of building software for a big customer – have a cool idea, get requirements, design, build, test, deliver, repeat."

At the beginning, Pepper noted that they "focused on core of gameplay" but that this element is "only a small part." In fact, promotion, pricing, polish, hardware integration, patent/trademark issues, cultural integration, distribution, packaging are all needed to "create a sustainable business."