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Video games have long provided a way to escape the real world and enter into imaginary ones. Now researchers are discovering that they can work in the other direction, too, by helping some patients who have been removed from normal life due to illness, make their way back to it.
Stroke victims often suffer from debilitating paralysis. Even with intensive therapy, most still have problems six months after the event. New virtual reality games are being developed for these patients that can aid arm and hand movement rehabilitation. These games, which use the same technology the film industry uses for motion capture computer-generated action scenes, are showing better results than some traditional therapies. Although it’s unclear if these effects are long-term and/or due to other factors, they seem to be moving in a positive direction: whenever a patient gains independence and a sense of normalcy, his or her prognosis improves.
Video games are also being used for physical therapy research. Patients at Johns Hopkins University who were admitted to the ICU for respiratory failure, sepsis, cardiovascular disease, and other problems, participated in therapy that involved using the Nintendo Wii and the Wii Fit. After over forty sessions in which they played a variety of games, patients showed marked improvement in balance and stamina. Making physical therapy fun seemed to improve mood and compliance, leading to a better therapeutic outcome.
Children, the original target audience for video games, are also benefiting from video game research. Scientists at the University of Utah are collaborating with that university’s Engineering Arts and Entertainment program to create a game that gives young cancer victims both entertainment and hope. Inspired by the daily struggles of these patients, students and professors created a motion-controlled game that stars a superhero who’s exhausted from battling his archnemesis. In the course of the game, the hero grows stronger and happier by performing a variety of good deeds. Researchers and programmers anticipate that kids will identify with this character while gaining strength, mobility and a positive outlook – factors that are critical to overcoming disease.
As these examples demonstrate, video games can be much more than just a means of escape. They can aid recovery while bringing fun and entertainment to patients’ lives. It seems inevitable that games will figure more and more into doctors’ treatment plans.
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