Texas A&M Researchers Examine How Video Games Can Improve Bird Health

COLLEGE STATION, Texas – Playing video games has been a favorite pastime of young and old alike, and now the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) is investigating the benefits of video games on an unconventional gamer-birds. Researchers at the CVM’s Schubot Exotic Bird Health Center are in the process of developing video games that can be played by birds on a tablet.

Ph.D. student Connie Woodman with sun conures
Ph.D. student Connie Woodman with sun conures

Using vocalizations or movement, birds can play the game and win a treat that is dispensed upon completion of the game’s task. For birds like pet parrots, video games can be more than just entertaining; they can also provide much-needed mental stimulation as well as other potential health benefits.

“The problem is that these are incredibly intelligent birds, and it is challenging to provide them with all the stimulation that they require,” said Dr. Donald Brightsmith, an assistant professor at the CVM leading the project. “Owners need to provide intelligent birds with as much mental stimulation as possible. Then, there’s the physical aspect. If you sit around on the couch all day, it’s not good for you, and it’s not good for a parrot to sit on a perch all day either. Getting the parrots to continue to move is extremely beneficial.”

“Birds face some of the same health issues humans face,” said Constance “Connie” Woodman, a Ph.D. student working on the project. “They can get brittle bones; they can get problems with arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries; they can get fat. This is why exercise is important.”

The first game the researchers developed is similar to the popular game “whack-a-mole,” they said. In scientific terms they call it a stimulus discrimination test. “Picture a pop-up on the screen, and if the birds yelled at the pop-up to ‘scare’ it away, then the picture would go away,” Woodman said. “Then, the bird gets a reward from the dispenser. We tested whether or not the animals could learn on their own how to utilize the tablet to play the game and gain a reward. They showed all the signs of being a content, happy animal during that process.”

The device could eventually be programmable, so the owner could set the times in which the game would be played while the owner is away. Additionally, the tablet could be sold with the feeder as a package, so the owner would not use their own personal tablet.

“It would be nice to come home and know that your animal had been exercising during the day,” Brightsmith said. “Video games such as this would allow pet owners to increase the bird’s activity and increase the bird’s mental stimulation, with an interest in improving the physical and mental health of the birds.”

Developing the video game stemmed from an Undergraduate Research Scholars project conducted by Woodman and Taylor Strange, a senior biomedical sciences student at the time. Since then, the project has flourished and potential for commercialization has been pursued. To explore the market, Woodman and Brightsmith were invited to participate in an entrepreneur training course sponsored by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Innovation Corps Program. “We figured out that the idea we have is definitely fit for commercialization,” Brightsmith said. “There’s a need out there in the real world for this sort of technology.”

The researchers were awarded $50,000 through NSF’s project and with that they interviewed 127 bird owners to assess the market value, finding a need for this technology. “Our research showed that, in fact, there’s a market among bird owners for a technology like this,” Brightsmith said.

The researchers will soon be conducting additional market research where users can interact with the game and provide additional feedback to make the design more user-friendly and resilient to wear and tear. The researchers also said that they could see potential use of this technology in other species, including other pets and zoo animals.

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