Video games are often portrayed negatively in American media, especially outside of the gaming community. In a sea of such negative publicity (the Columbine killers mentioned the popular video game Doom in their writings before the Colorado attack) it’s easy to forget how beneficial video games can be. They are gaining traction in hospitals across the country in a variety of applications, in fields as diverse as motor skill therapy and grief counseling.
For patients who have high pain levels, video game therapy represents a welcome distraction from the reality of their surroundings, especially if the patient is young and not fully capable of assessing the likelihood of their recovery. Educational DVDs, movies, and interactive videos can be used in lieu of conventional classroom instruction for children who are undergoing treatment for serious illnesses and injuries. Indeed, many modern children’s hospitals have staff members that are trained in communicating with the child’s school administration and how to best structure the child’s continuing education around reduced mobility or other severe limitations.
Video game therapy is are also used quite frequently in grief counseling for younger patients, many of whom may be relatively silent regarding their feelings surrounding the grief event itself. Children often have smaller vocabularies (both gestural and vocal) and may feel helpless when asked to talk about an event that produces mature sadness, anger, and stress. Video games emphasize interaction, recognition of social cues, and coordination. In other words, video games are excellent tools for keeping children (and many adults) from escaping into their grief by prompting interaction in fun and challenging ways. Physicians can also draw conclusions from the data, such as where the patient may be in their grieving process and how capable the patient is of concentrating on various objectives for a set period of time.
For older patients, video games are often featured as an integral component of physical therapy programs. Physicians treating patients recovering from spinal cord injuries, strokes, or surgical procedures that have compromised their motor skills often incorporate different video game regimens into their physical rehabilitation. The necessity of re-learning basic motor skills like walking, grasping, raising the arms, etc., can often feel very discouraging to adults who previously had no mobility problems. Video games assist the brain in re-structuring neural networks based around motion, cognition, and problem-solving. They also allow patients to track their progress more incrementally than traditional methods, which can feel like pass / fail objectives. With the recent release of the Xbox One’s improved Kinect software, we may see more attempts at integrating motion and puzzle-based video game therapy into physical therapy programs worldwide.