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WATCH: Gaming For the Good Of It

David Eichel plays games on an iPad while he receives monthly treatment for chronic asthma at Unity Health System.
David Eichel plays games on an iPad while he receives monthly treatment for chronic asthma at Unity Health System.

The addicting effect of video games is one an avid gamer can certainly describe. Once the controller hits the tips of their fingers, they are transported into a world of challenge and excitement.

The pastime is often criticized and accused of contributing to inactivity, and sometimes for having a violent influence. Studies have shown, however, that gaming can actually provide therapeutic value.

According to the American Pain Society, researchers say virtual reality is proving to be effective in reducing anxiety and acute pain caused by painful medical procedures, and could be useful for treating chronic pain.

Generally, it's believed that as we play games, our focus shifts away from the pain and therefore, we temporarily forget about it. But the study finds that the mechanism of pain relief in gaming is actually a lot more complicated than common distraction and can deal with more serious pain.

For example, the study shows that when immersed in the virtual world of gaming, those who are undergoing serious procedures, like chemotherapy, report significantly less stress and trepidation. For burn wound care, the study reports that a patient’s pain ratings can decrease by 30 percent to 50 percent.

“If you go into an infusion room, you’ll quite often find that most of the patients have got some sort of device that they’re playing with,” says Betsy Twohig-Barrett, president of Cancer Wellness Connections.

Twohig-Barrett’s organization in Rochester, New York, brings in various wellness-based, diversionary activities to local hospitals for free, including lending iPads to patients undergoing treatment so they can play games.

“If you’re sitting in a chair, strapped into a chair for four or five hours, to find yourself transported to a different realm for those five hours can be greatly beneficial,” says Twohig-Barrett.

The mother of three was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer last summer and finished chemotherapy in the winter. She had been involved with Cancer Wellness Connections for four years because she had a passion to help the cause. Little did she know she, too, could soon benefit from the services provided by her own program. Twohig-Barrett says she isn’t surprised gaming in chemotherapy has caught on so quickly.

“Who is playing games is not what we traditionally think of. It’s not just teenage boys.”

3-D games and pain relief

Chronic asthma has profoundly affected the life of 55-year-old patient David Eichel, who returns to the hospital every four weeks for two to three injections that help to reduce the number of asthma attacks he suffers.

The former computer programmer hasn’t been able to maintain a full-time job in his field for nearly two decades due to an assortment of illnesses.

“I have GERD. I have birth defects of my feet and ankles, high blood pressure, diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts. I literally take over 30 medications every day,” says Eichel.

But when he’s feeling down, Eichel picks himself up with a good book every night, followed by his all-time favorite video game.

“I’ve just restarted and finished playing Serious Sam, which is a hard core ‘shoot ‘em up.’ But I just have fun wandering around these 3-D environments of ancient Egypt. That’s one of the things I find fascinating,” says Eichel.

Research has also shown that when playing 3-D games, the brain busies itself using other senses, like vision and touch, and releases endorphins, a chemical that generally makes us feel good. At the same time, the virtual experience helps produce a numbing response in brain regions associated with pain.

Twohig-Barrett says her genuine hope is that video games can alleviate the anxiety of approaching pain as well as the pain experience itself.

“If you can take away the fear of going in for an infusion, not that the infusion is going to be hurtful – it’s the whole process that you may not feel well afterwards, anything you can do is helpful.”

Sasha-Ann Simons joined the team at WXXI News in 2015 as a Multimedia Reporter/Producer. She tells stories about the innovation economy and technology in upstate New York and also does general assignment reporting. Sasha-Ann is the host of Arts InFocus, WXXI-TV's weekly arts and culture program. She is also a fill-in host and regular contributor to Need To Know.