Can Video Games Be Used For Medicinal Purposes?


This week Nintendo made headlines in the video game world, when they had once again made some serious donations for an amazing cause. They have once again partnered up with the Starlight Children’s Foundation to make what they call “the healing power of play” accessible to a variety of pediatric hospitals worldwide. They did this previously with their prior system, the original Nintendo Wii, however these “fun centers” are being updated with their latest Wii U technology, which provides young patients and their families “endless hours of entertainment, distraction and fun, as well as a sense of normalcy.” While video games have many times through the years been called hazardous to your health in some ways, people often ask the question if the same technology can be used to actually improve your health. On a personal level, I must say that the answer to that question is a heart filled yes.

In the early days of video games, many medical journals had initially speculated that playing video games for long periods of time could cause a variety of health issues, such as eye strain and fatigue. In more recent years, these health issues were assumed on an even higher level, with some studies claiming that video games (specifically those that are violent in nature), could cause aggression, depression, and other mental side effects. However these stories tend to overshadow the ones that show the complete opposite, the positive side effects of playing video games. Such stories go as far back as 1985, when doctors at Saint Joseph Hospital in Connecticut did a variety of research about computer gaming and physical health. Their findings showed that patients that had suffered major injury to the brain were able to strengthen the organ by the use of hand-eye coordination, by playing games such as Pong.

A more recent study from 2014 actually showed that playing the simple game of Tetris could actually stop naturally occurring cravings for things such as food and cigarettes, by studying was is called “Elaborated Intrusion Theory”. This study provided the very first laboratory test of hypothesis in naturally occurring (as opposed to artificially induced) cravings. Participants in this particular study were to report if they were experiencing any type of craving and later rated its strength, vividness and intrusiveness. They then either played Tetris, or they waited for a game program to load on a computer, which was designed to show loading screens, but never start the actual game. Before the tasks completion, the participants craving scores between the two conditions were the same, but those that had a chance to actually play a game of Tetris had significantly lower cravings and less vivid craving imagery.

However, the average person can spend literally hundreds of hours reading through the various studies that have been professionally performed to find out what the positives of video game play are. But unless you have experienced such a study on a personal level, most people will not be able to connect with the findings. Which is what I wanted to share with everyone this evening. You see, I know firsthand how the power and technology of the home video game can give someone a complete turnaround on life, and actually increase the value of ones existence.

My mother, Kathy, was diagnosed as a diabetic as a pre-teen. For years as a teenager, young adult, and throughout her adult years, she was consistently checking her blood sugar levels to make sure that they were within normal limits, and for years she did whatever she could to make sure that she took care of herself. For her entire life, she was never dependent on insulin to keep her levels in sync, and she educated herself all the time about the needs to be a healthy, active person, who just happened to be living with diabetes. She always did a lot of research to make sure she was doing everything in her power to be strong, and working in a hospital gave her a lot of knowledge and information at her fingertips, especially in a pre-internet era.

As the years went on however, it got harder and harder for my mom to keep strong and healthy, and it was a condition that she started to notice in the early 1990s that had her concerned. Some of my mother’s hobbies included reading anything she could get her hands on, as well as doing needlepoint and decoupage, which is the art of creating or decorating objects made of paper, and permanently mounting them to boards of wood or other materials. It was around this time frame that my mom slowly began to notice that her eyesight was not nearly as good as it used to be. (At this time, my mother was in her early 40s.) She let it go for a short time, but when her vision had continued to fail, she took action and had a complete vision examination.

The doctor had explained to her that her eyesight was in fact beginning to deteriorate, but that the good news was that it was in only one eye. Her other eye at this time was still in perfect health. However as most people know, having one of your eyes malfunction causes a lot of problems with balance, and most importantly depth perception, which could cause even more social problems, since driving a car, for instance, would become a dangerous task. My mom had gotten very upset with this news, and her physician noticed it right away. However he had a very interesting proposal of my mom, which took her back at first.

He had asked my mom if anyone in the family owned a video game console. She explained to him that her son (me!) was very much into video games, but that she never played them personally. (Mom loved the technology and creativity that video games of the era offered, but as she used to say, “Video games have gotten much more advanced since Pong, and I could never keep up with them!”) Mom initially thought that the doctor was going to scold her for playing too many video games, and thought that he was going to say that doing such an activity was one of the causes of her sight beginning to fail, but it turned out to be just the opposite.

Her eye doctor told her that he wanted to do an experiment with her. He told her to find a video game that was easy to learn, easy to play, did not have a lot of background movement, and something that she could enjoy. He told her that if I had any video games such as Tetris or Columns, that both of them would be an excellent choice. He asked her to play the video game normally with both eyes for the first day, to try to see if she could get the hang of how to play it. After playing for about an hour, just enough to get used to the controls, to cover the good eye with a patch, and to play with only the poor eye aimed at the television screen. He predicted that by forcing the bad eye to focus on constant, slow movement, that it may help strengthen the bad eye to the point where it could be comparable to the good eye.

So, mom came home from the doctors office and told me what she was told. (I was only about 11 years old at this time, mind you.) I told her that she had actually given me a copy of Tetris a little bit ago for the original NES system, and that I still had it. To help her out, I instantly disconnected the NES from the TV in my bedroom, and hooked it up to the set in the den, which had a much larger screen. I plugged in the Tetris cartridge, and after fooling around with that blinking screen that the NES was famous for, I got the game to work. I played the game for a few minutes and showed her what the object was, and told her that you only needed to use a simple selection of buttons to get it to play. She watched me for a few more minutes, and then I handed her that famous rectangular controller. After playing for about 20 minutes, she decided that this would be her new “prescription”, starting the next night when she got home from work.

And that she did, and she did it faithfully. Every night, my mom would come home from work, put a patch over her good eye, and play Tetris. At first she would play for only about 5 or 10 minutes a night until she started getting a headache, but as the days and weeks went on, she was able to play for longer periods of time. She noticed after about 2 months that not only was playing Tetris with the eye covered getting easier to do, but she noticed that she wasn’t losing her balance as much in her day to day activities. It was also getting easier for her to do her other hobbies that I talked about earlier. Her all around attitude on life improved, and to top it all off, she was really enjoying her new hobby. It gave her something new to look forward to.

About 4 months after the initial visit to the eye doctor, she had a follow up appointment. She told the doctor that she took his advice, was playing Tetris for about 20 minutes a night, and noticed that her sight was getting better. After going through another examination, it was discovered that the strength in her poor eye was in fact getting better, and that it was not just her imagination. Her eye still had a way to go before becoming perfect, but the fact that it was getting better was enough for her. She continued to play every night, and in under a full year of playing Tetris nightly, her eyesight was almost back to full 20/20 vision.

The doctors hypothesis had worked. My mom was finally able to enjoy her favorite hobbies of arts and crafts, and of course reading. But she now had a new modern hobby to the list: Playing Tetris! In fact, on her last appointment when she discovered her eyes were nearly 20/20 vision, she actually asked if that meant that she had to stop playing the game! She had really gotten hooked. (In fact, she used to wake me up in the middle of the night to show off her new high score!) He told her to continue enjoying the video games, just be careful with them and don’t overdo it. As the years went on of her playing Tetris (and enjoying her newly reformed eyesight), she used to be able to start at level 19 and play for a half hour without restarting. As someone that had already been playing the game for quite a while already, She really put me to shame!

Unfortunately, my mother passed away back in 2006, due to some complications that had been caused by her diabetic condition. Her heart had stopped and been restarted a few times by means of an internal defibrillator, and her kidneys had ultimately failed, which was her ultimate cause of death. But if it weren’t for Tetris strengthening her poor eye back in the early 1990s, she would not have had the quality of life that she had for about the 14 years between that time and her death. It’s one thing to have 14 years of life, and not being able to live, but to have good quality time in the same span, it’s really something not to take for granted.

So I take my hats off to Nintendo for providing Wii U consoles to children’s hospitals across the country. While it may help some kids with problems with eyesight, it might help another child with a brain situation. Or it could just be used as a medium for the child to spend time with their family and friends, to take their minds off of the personal battle they are fighting. In all aspects, I firmly believe that video games can be a major positive in the world of physical and mental health issues. I cherished all of the years watching my mother playing Tetris, and watching her slowly regaining confidence in herself, and the fact that Nintendo sees this as an opportunity to help many families share the same type of bond in such a difficult time, is really a wonderful thing, and something you don’t see very often in this day in age. Mom, I love you, I miss you, and now let me play some Tetris. Maybe someday I will be as good as you were!

Kris Lane

When you get right down to it, Kris Lane has a variety of unique hobbies, but it's really quite simple: You see, if it plugged into an outlet, and it was made in the eighties, he's pretty much hooked. He was also freaked out by those old tests of the Emergency Broadcast System. Totally hated those things. So what exactly is a person that is stuck in the eighties, living in the modern world, supposed to do to survive? I suggest that we find out together!

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