Why Video Games May Be The Pain Killers Of The Future

Xbox Controller Video Games Gaming Painted Nails

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“There’s nothing we can do; you’ll just have to manage it for now.” These words, coming from a doctor, are all too familiar for people with any chronic pain — and especially so for women. For some, including myself, it is video games that have helped them manage.

This isn’t a new or untested idea, and the key is distraction. Back in 2011, a New Zealand study looked at how well people could be distracted from the pain using a variety of techniques. Turns out video games (an active distraction) was far more successful than passive distractions — like television or no distraction at all. Patients were also more eager to try the same experiment again and had less anxiety if they knew an active distraction would be involved.

No one is suggesting replacing medication with a controller, but games can provide something else to focus on to help manage the pain. TV, movies, and books can also help, myself, I find them a little too passive — much like the study suggested. On the other hand, some video games are too demanding, so there’s a balance in finding that perfect level of focus to get me through. A variety of studies have shown this, too.

More recently, scientists in the Netherlands had patients with chronic pain play LAKA, a game with a focus on mindfulness. Throughout the game, LAKA has you make (and rate) a series of choices. Should you be kind, or rude to this random person you met while you’re travelling the world? This game isn’t aimed at just helping with pain management, there is a focus on helping improve player’s perception, too. The studies generally show slightly positive effects, but LAKA doesn’t quite hit the right “active distraction” points for consistently effective pain management.

What Works For Me (Might Not Work For You)

The game that may work for you can depend largely on the level of pain you’re in. Online shooters, for example, are almost always a no go when I’m in pain. It doesn’t matter how much I love playing games like Overwatch, the fast-paced nature and inability to pause tends to be too much. I find single player first person shooters, like the Far Cry series, to be helpful — but only for lower levels of pain. These tend to be less reflex based, and I can pause when I need to. If I’m having a particularly bad flare up, sometimes I’m still not up for this level of activity.

There is a similar trend with puzzle games, too. Tetris, for example, was great for short bouts but tended to be a bit much to handle if I needed to distract for more extended periods. Slower puzzles, on the other hand, like many word games or sudoku don’t distract me enough and let my mind wander back too easily to how I’m feeling.

This isn’t a new or untested idea, and the key is distraction.

Turn-based role-playing games, more specifically Japanese role-playing games, is the perfect genre for my personal pain management. You can generally play at your own pace, and there’s rarely any reaction based timing — so it doesn’t matter too much if you’re not at your best. These games tend to be quite long, sometimes spanning over a hundred hours, so there’s always some content to explore.

And my perfect game? Persona 5. It mixes a turn-based battle system with an incredibly well-paced story. I played it last year when I was particularly unwell, sinking my 80-hour playthrough in approximately a week of poor health. Recently, with another flare up I’ve found myself coming back for New Game Plus.

While we eagerly await the results of studies looking at specific games that work best, surging ahead in the medical community is the use of virtual reality.

The Rise Of Medical Virtual Reality

VR can make you fitter, and it is also widely used to help people deal with pain. VR is most prominently used for acute pain management — burn care, cancer treatments, and routine medical procedures.

The Children’s Hospital Los Angeles published details about how patients can generally tolerate more pain, and also be more willing to participate in procedures using VR. This also led to less stressful procedures, especially with children. When they were using VR they were more distracted, and also more compliant. Compliance means calmer, stiller children, which means better procedures — like inserting a needle once instead of multiple attempts on a wriggling kid.

But is virtual reality a legitimate form of pain relief? Based on its ability to keep patients mentally and emotionally happy — as well as distracted — researchers believe that might just be the case.

US soldiers with burn wounds reported a decrease in pain intensity and unpleasantness while using a VR program depicting snow and icy environments. They halved the amount of time they thought about pain, and even rated the experience as “pretty fun”.

Unfortunately, the blind spot for VR is chronic pain. After seeing the effectiveness of VR as pain management, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver explored the uses it may have for other types of pain, but the results aren’t promising.

While VR is an excellent distraction for procedures and moments of increased pain, it is not so great for long term effects. Using VR for elongated periods of time can be tough for some people, and 60% of patients reported feeling unwell during some of the VR experiences. Chronic pain patients did report feeling less pain while using the system, but there wasn’t any follow on from this.

This is similar to how I’m using gaming to distract myself — I need to be doing it to gain the benefits. Perhaps we need more purpose-built games like LAKA, where there are positive effects beyond just the immediate experience. And with more research underway every day, maybe we’ll see a day where doctors prescribe gaming sessions to ease pain, alongside medication.

Feature image by Pixabay used under Creative Commons Zero license.