Games Unlock relief for people with chronic pain

By Jess Erion

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the iconic opening line, “Hey you, you’re finally awake,” as my TV screen filled with a view of Skyrim’s vast Scandinavian landscape. My high school English teacher was the first to introduce me to digital RPGs (role-playing games) when he introduced me to Dragon Age. At the time, I loved the genre for its wealth of stories and complex worlds, but it quickly took on more meaning as games became my primary tool for pain management.

In my early teens I suffered a shoulder injury that has lasted 10 years since, two orthopedic surgeons and several physical therapists to treat – and I still need regular physical therapy and daily medication to keep pain levels manageable. When I was younger, I didn’t have the same access to health care as I do now. I am fortunate to have been treated by so many qualified specialists, but when I went to the local clinic as a child with this injury, the doctor told me to take some Advil and get rid of it. Without guidance or medication, I turned to the one thing that reliably relieved my pain: games.

Several articles and studies have appeared over the past few decades about games and their ability to reduce pain through active distraction. In 2020, one study showed that patients who had pain as a result of chemotherapy reduced their pain by 30% by playing video games. Few of these studies capture the experience of disabled people and others with chronic pain who use games in the same way I did — not as something prescribed, but something we discovered for ourselves as a tool to improve our pain.

How do games help with pain?

Games that are highly immersive, as well as games that are absorbing and repetitive, provide relief in moments of intense pain. Tiberius, who has a bone disease, told me how play became a sanctuary. Tiberius — and several other people interviewed for this story — chose not to disclose their last name to maintain privacy about their medical condition. “Historically, I haven’t had much access to health care at all. Perhaps the most important thing games could offer was escapism, having high concept worlds to inhabit, especially when I was younger and undiagnosed. [with a bone disease]† It helped me not to think about my own body for a long time.”

Alex Roberts, a game designer and graduate student who experiences chronic pain, also cites the hypnotic nature of games. “If the pain is severe and immediate, a video game that is intense and repetitive and demanding will really separate me from my pain completely, like Mario Kart or Tetris or Puyo Puyo.”

However, both these interviewees and many others explained that different games help with pain in different ways. Some games ease the pain by allowing players to build community with each other, especially tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons where multiple players come together to create a story together.

“If I’m not at the top of the pain scale,” says Roberts, “one of the best things I can do for my pain is to get involved in a tabletop role-playing campaign, just play with my friends every week. It keeps me from feeling trapped in my body and feeling bad about what my body is doing, but it’s also part of a meaningful and fulfilling life… Games also make it possible for people who are very experience different levels of pain to connect.

“While I was in the hospital, one of the best things was when my friend came to visit me and run a single-player campaign, or bring their Switch to play Mario Kart, because it allowed us to experience something fun without being too much. to make a lot of demands from one of us as a disabled person and another as a carer We knew it was doable for both of us and it helped so much with my pain … Table games especially often reward you when you care about others and noticing things about others. Usually it makes the game better or more interesting.”

Haley, a hydrocephalus student, notes that table games and gaming communities enable a level of representation and self-expression for people with disabilities that is rare in most forms of media. “There are really good mechanics and elements in the tabletop, like the” combat wheelchair [created by Sara Thompson]† There’s a whole community of disabled table players figuring out how can we bring a disabled adventurer to life in these environments? Although I am not a wheelchair user, I find a lot of strength in showing that identity in games.” Other table games are intentionally designed to center disabled players and characters, such as Survival of the Able, which was written by blind game designer Jacob Wood and focuses on a cast of disabled characters as they try to survive a zombie apocalypse.

Do games have a future in healthcare?

Najmeh Khalili-Mahani, PhD, a neuroscientist, biomedical engineer and interdisciplinary researcher at the Universities of Concordia and McGill who has proposed a digital strategy for large-scale qualitative health research, explained that incorporating games into traditional medicine is not in the offing. .

Existing studies have been small, she said, and larger sample sizes are needed to justify what’s seen as an unconventional treatment. “Most of the evidence that exists to prove that games reduce pain comes from extreme cases, such as burn victims or cancer patients. There is existing literature, but the samples are very small. A larger sample size will require someone to invest a lot more money in it. So we’re stuck with morphine as the cheapest, fastest and most immediate effective pain treatment, with all the unwanted consequences that entails.”

Moreover, ‘game’ as a subject of medical research is difficult to establish with so many genres, forms and cultural nuances. “Games are informed by culture and they won’t affect everyone in the same way. Games that I find fascinating and pain-relieving, you may find annoying and frustrating. How do we find out which ones work for which people when the field of games is so huge? … I think and hope that the more media scientists and social scientists start working with medical professionals and researchers, the better understanding we will have,” said Khalili-Mahani.

She continued to say that strengthening individual testimonials from people experiencing chronic pain is key to future research and implementation of games as part of healthcare. “I think the effective push will come from below, from patients’ personal stories explaining what works for them, what works for thousands of them. To the point where it can’t be ignored anymore.”

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