Pac-Man, Tetris, Super Mario, and other Rehabilitative Tools

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In a time where every service has undergone an overhaul due to technological advancement, why should rehabilitation be any different?

The rehabilitation process is very taxing on a patient and the clinician. Patients struggle to stay motivated, interested, and curb their frustrations, while clinicians struggle to find tasks that motivate their patients to continue the therapy and derive some pleasure from their progress. More specifically, clinicians require activities that have measurable outcomes to determine the progress of the patient.

Finding a balance between fun and purposeful activities is very difficult, and has arguably limited the level of enthusiasm that is necessary to achieve success in traditional rehabilitative therapies. It appears that virtual reality and video game based therapy provides answers to this challenge as the most "innovative and promising recent developments in rehabilitation technology"1There is much skepticism regarding this therapy, and considerable research has been conducted.

Popular brain-training games might not necessarily do what they are claiming to do, for example, although Tetris can help you prevent PTSD, a brain-training game will not help you remember where you left your car keys2However, studies show that "goal-oriented, task specific training improves function and that increased amounts of training produce better outcomes.

A problem with task-specific treatment approaches is maintaining peoples' interest in performing repetitive tasks and ensuring they complete the treatment program. However, the use of rewarding activities has been shown to improve peoples' motivation to practice3.

The effect of game and virtual reality based tasks is that it changes the focus of the therapy from getting better from something, to getting better at something4; that simple change provides the motivation to continue through therapy and reap the benefits of continuing rehabilitation at a faster and more enjoyable pace than traditional approaches.

A study published in the Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association found that the treatment offers the following assets for rehabilitation:

  1. Goal-directed and intended behavior with a random target presentation and motion
  2. Range of movement speeds
  3. Varying accuracy of objects
  4. Multitasking
  5. Game play strategy
  6. Rewards, goal-attainment, and positive reinforcement
  7. Portability and affordability5

Virtual reality and game therapy allows a personalization of treatment needs with the possibility of varying complexity of tasks and support levels. In virtual reality, the goal is to make patients capable of participating in their own environments in an independent manner by practicing in a controlled virtual environment that eliminates some of the difficulties of real world settings6.

As the patient progresses, the virtual environment can be adapted to coincide with changing comfort levels and improvements. Researchers and digital game designers, like Jane McGonigal, have created games like SuperBetter that are specifically focused on therapy and research7There has been incredible movement towards gaming as an effective rehabilitative tool.

With the introduction of video game and virtual reality therapy, there is a direction towards a more enjoyable and productive therapy experience. It is able to address the challenges of conventional therapy and provide patients with a less arduous rehabilitation experience that gives power back to the patient and changes the focus from their difficulties, pain, and frustrations to the goals of the game or virtual reality they are participating in.

While immersed in this activity, they are unaware of the positive benefits the therapy is having on their brain activity and progress. Technology is developing at an incredible pace and it is always interesting to see how it can be used as a productive tool in human care.

1Patrice L Weiss et al, "Video capture virtual reality as flexible and effective rehabilitation tool" (2004) 1:12 Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation 1 at 1.

2Ken MacQueen, "The Interview" Maclean's (21 September 2015) 12, at 12.

3Aimee L Betker et al., "Game based Exercises for Dynamic Short-Sitting Balance Rehabilitation of People with Chronic Spinal Cord and Traumatic Brain Injuries" (2007) 87:10 Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association 1389 at 1390.

4supra note 2 at 13.

5supra note 3 at 1397.

6supra note 1 at 2.

7supra note 2.


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