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Likewise, when the time came for me to give up my pack-a-day smoking habit, I didn't use nicotine gum to control cravings or self-help guides to find the resolve to stop. Previous efforts failed due to savage headaches, lethargy and my own absolutely abominable, withdrawal-related behavior towards others. This time, with a week off work and nothing very important to do, I decided to try something different. I immersed myself in computer games for several days, playing almost compulsively until I stopped feeling the tugs, gentle and sharp, of a five-year habit.
Contemporary research suggests my experience is not unique. Tests with patients using virtual reality equipment repeatedly demonstrate that the more someone retreats to a virtual world, the less he or she registers sensations from the real one. One of the leading research teams in this area, that of Dr. Hunter Hoffman at the University of Washington, has shown that VR games can more effectively attenuate certain kinds of pain than pharmacological painkillers. His team has used VR to help burn victims undergo dressing changes (an apparently agonizing procedure) and help chemotherapy patients endure the effects of the treatment.
Using games in pain therapy becomes more attractive when you consider the potential negative effects of traditional treatment. While there are doubtless those who feel that "videogame addiction" is a grave and growing threat, it pales in comparison to drug addiction. Introducing an addictive substance to someone exposes him to serious risks that grow with prolonged use. Someone who takes codeine for a few days after a surgery runs very little risk of addiction, but those who suffer from chronic pain face a significantly greater challenge. Physicians must constantly vary the treatment regimen as a patient's body adjusts, but they must also weigh the risks of increased drug use against the very real need to treat the patient's pain. Furthermore, patients who need treatment for pain often require other prescriptions, which physicians must take into account before administering a painkiller. Introducing a painkiller to a patient already being treated with other drugs creates a host of complications. Compared with this level of complexity, employing virtual reality or videogames is comparatively simple and requires far less time and attention from physicians.
None of this is meant to suggest that games are a panacea for those who are suffering, of course. Distraction is effective only up to a point. Pain can be so intense that it will overwhelm any efforts to direct one's attention elsewhere. There is also the problem of outpatients who suffer from chronic pain who must also hold down jobs and go about their normal, daily life. It's easy to take a prescription drug as needed, but how does one go about "popping a videogame" while at work or on the way to class?
Nevertheless, gaming shows considerable promise as an approach to pain therapy. With none of the difficulties and risks associated with pharmacological treatments and experimental results that sometimes surpass them, games can help those in pain avoid some of the most sapping psychological effects.
Rob Zacny is a freelance writer. When not focused on gaming, he pursues his interests in Classics, the World Wars, cooking and film. He can be reached at zacnyr[at]gmail[dot]com.