It seems like someone in the media is always making noise about how video games are negatively impacting the younger generation, instilling in them a sense of violence, irresponsibility, and laziness. Not only do television shows and movies depict die-hard gamers that will skip showering, eating, and sleeping in order to get the high score, to the point that they must be hospitalized, but these extreme events actually happen in real life on occasion. It seems like teen gamers make the headlines a couple of times a year when they’re found dead after 2-day marathon gaming sessions in which they fail to eat, drink, or sleep. It may sound like an urban legend, but it happens. However, it’s difficult to blame video games for these isolated incidents. In truth, the influence of video games depends not only on the game, but also on the person playing it. Most people see video games as the tools for recreation that they are, rather than a serious endeavor with real-world consequences. But could video games do more? Could they influence our health and well-being? And could they do so in a positive way?
According to a new study published in the Science Translation Medical journal by Dr. Carol Bruggers (of Children’s Medical Center) and colleagues from a variety of disciplines, video games could have a therapeutic effect on patients with chronic diseases. But these aren’t just any video games. It’s not as though playing the latest version of Diablo or Madden will help the average patient deal with diseases and disorders like asthma, autism, cancer, diabetes, or Parkinson’s, just for example. But games that empower patients to take control of their own health and fitness by setting attainable goals may have an additional therapeutic effect that helps them to overcome or at least deal with their ailments. That was the theory posited by the team, and the evidence they gathered seems to support it.
The study focused specifically on health-related games (or exergames), some of which were sedentary in nature while others prompted players to get up and move. They also created their own game, the Patient Empowerment (or PE) Exercise Video Game, designed to help patients get in touch with their “fighting spirit” even as they addressed health issues relevant to their particular disease or disorder. It turns out that playing video games has the potential to raise levels of dopamine in the brain. The hope is that this could be a non-pharmacological method of dealing with the physical, mental, and emotional trauma caused by certain diseases, although this outcome is as yet unknown. However, health care providers are interested in video games as a course of treatment for several reasons.
First of all, video games are fun and engaging. People approach them with this attitude. So while patients might not be too keen to get on a treadmill in order to improve health, they may certainly be willing to play a video game that allows them to choose their own activities and virtually take control of their health. Plus, these games can blend physical therapy with motivational tactics that will help patients to reach a variety of goals, such as weight loss or increased strength, endurance, and stamina, for example. And of course, the combination of fun and exercise can make people feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally. It’s a little different than the boost one might get from earning WOW gold in-game, but for patients facing serious medical concerns, the potential benefits of therapeutic exergames could provide a much more powerful incentive to play.