Play is important for children because it promotes learning and helps them develop new skills and abilities… but kids play just because it’s fun! As adults we’re really not so different; if it weren’t for our ‘grown-up’ responsibilities we just might play games for hours on end too. Encouraging adults to play is the premise behind play-based therapy for patients with acquired brain injury due to stroke or trauma to the head, such as a car accident or fall.
Standard rehabilitation programs for regaining brain function often include intensive, repetitive training: doing the same thing over and over, frequently and for long durations. It can work but it’s time consuming, can be boring, and many patients don’t stick with the programs (1). But if those movements are done during the course of a fun or interesting game, people may be inclined to “play” longer and more often, ideally resulting in faster and better recovery.
Technology-based games and virtual reality gaming systems are popular options for therapy, especially as they’ve become more available and affordable in recent years (2). There are all sorts of games to choose from and various gaming devices (handheld remotes, balance boards, etc.) that track and record movement. Most systems motivate players through feedback (displaying scores) and encouraging them to reach the next goal or level (2).
It may be a preferred type of therapy for people who suffer a brain injury, but does playing video games really help aid recovery? A systematic review of 30 studies compared the use of electronic gaming systems with usual (not play-based) treatment or no treatment (3). Participants had adult-acquired brain injuries, most commonly as a result of a stroke. The study groups played video/electronic and virtual reality games for 30 to 60 minutes at a time, three to five times a week, for up to nine weeks. The studies measured the effects of a variety of game systems, including the Nintendo Wii (WiiSports or WiiFit), Sony Playstation Eyetoy, Xbox Kinect and virtual reality games designed for rehabilitation (eg. IREX VR).
What the research tells us
Whether or not the participants won the championship, saved the (virtual) world or reached some other lofty goal, the important thing is they enjoyed trying and they benefited from spending time playing the games. There was sound evidence that technology-based games and activities promote greater independence and better balance, and are more effective than standard types of rehabilitation and treatment (3).
Another systematic review found that virtual reality and interactive video games improve arm function in stroke survivors, as well as the ability to perform day-to-day tasks (4). Further research will help clarify the most effective play-based activities and their potential benefits.
If you enjoy video or computer games, you know how easily you can lose track of time as you try to beat your personal best. You might think of it as a “guilty” pleasure, but a little playtime may be good (even for grown-ups) and perhaps especially for people coping with the effects of a brain injury. Ask your rehabilitation therapist for ideas about which games might help speed your recovery.