I remember the night I found out about my dad’s cancer. I had just started my first “real” job out of college as a GM for a popular pirate-themed MMOG. One evening, I got a call from my mother in the middle of my shift. I answered, hoping it would be a brief conversation: “Hi. Fine. At Work. Bye.” Instead, she had something important to say.

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“Dad just got back from the hospital. They found a tumor. It’s esophageal cancer. He’s going into surgery next week. Can you come home?”

The grueling six-hour surgery, wherein the esophagus is removed and the stomach stretched upwards to act as a new throat, went “perfectly” according to our surgeon. But the recovery was slow and painful. My father had to teach his stomach muscles to do something they had never done before: swallow. Then he had to regain some of the 62 pounds he shed while on a diet of intravenous fluids and soft foods. Getting back into shape after the surgery was especially tricky, since he ardently refused to join a gym.

Finally, earlier this year, my mom took matters into her own hands. She decided that this “Why-Fit” she had been reading about might get my dad off of his butt and exercising again. My parents didn’t have much gaming experience, but it didn’t matter. This summer, my Dad had his first unofficial session of Wii-hab.

Wii-hab is fast becoming a fixture in normal physical therapy sessions. It’s being used to treat Parkinson’s patients, those recovering from strokes, broken bones and even combat injuries. Gaming on the Wii solves one of physical therapy’s inherent problems: The exercises are often repetitive and boring. Videogames introduce a natural competitiveness that alleviates the tedium of PT exercises and gives them a good dose of fun to boot.

St. Mary’s in San Francisco has its very own dedicated Wii-hab unit, introduced by Dr. Justin Liu. In an interview with Kara Tsuboi of CNET, Liu states: “A spark went off in my mind that I could apply this technology to the world of rehab and really help patients with their physical deficits. It’s something where something from my personal life carried over into my professional life.”

Since beginning the program in 2008, nearly 200 patients have taken part in this special Wii-hab therapy. Though Wii-hab doesn’t replace traditional methods, it certainly helps break up the monotony of traditional physical therapy exercises. The buttons of the controller help patients with their small motor skills, while the swinging and flicking motions many games employ help with hand-eye coordination. Games that support the Wii Balance Board also assist with balance, core strengthening and even retraining muscles.

Jamie Weinman is a recent survivor of a brain tumor. After her tumor was removed, the entire left side of her body was affected. She’s been using Wii-hab to help with her balance and coordination. “It’s more fun because you don’t feel like it’s therapy,” she reports to CNET, “[Wii-hab] helped my leg get stronger, it helped me with my balance and coordination. The more you use it, the better you get, and it gets you excited to do it again because I’m trying to beat my last score.”

“It’s basically groundbreaking for the world of rehab because a lot of the traditional exercises are very repetitive and honestly it can get a bit tedious and boring for certain patients,” Liu tells KRON4 reporter Gabe Slate. He explains how Wii Fit has helped improve his patients’ balance and coordination: “The skiing is a traditional downhill slalom where they go through different gates. The patients are forced to shift their center of gravity from side to side, even leaning forward and backwards, and with that they’re … retraining certain weak muscles. Same thing goes with the yoga – the great thing is that Wii Fit gives you direct feedback on the screen about where your center of gravity is shifting. Patients can use that information, it’s a direct biofeedback, and they can use that to correct their stance.”

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Relearning how to keep one’s balance and retraining one’s center of gravity is especially helpful for patients who have just had hip replacement surgery. Roland, 63, plays golf in Wii Sports with one hand on his walker.

“So naturally, you think videogames – OK kids, how could something like this help?” Roland jokes to reporter Alyssa Ivanson. “But boy, once they show you, it’s tremendous what they can do for you. I can feel my muscles getting stronger each day as we work on this.”

Recent research has also shown that Wii-hab may help patients suffering from Parkinson’s, a degenerative disease which impairs motor skills. With the deterioration of their motor skills comes a erosion of their self-confidence; it’s estimated that nearly 45 percent of Parkinson’s patients suffer from depression.

In one study, 20 Parkinson patients played the Wii for an hour three times a week. Dr. Ben Herz found that playing the Wii improved the patients’ moods and their physical functions. Other studies have shown that videogames increase dopamine levels, a neurotransmitter that is deficient in Parkinson patients. Herz suspects that increased dopamine will help patients voluntarily work on their functional movements, which he claims they either “use or lose.” Sixty percent of patients who participated in the study purchased a Wii afterwards, a fact which Herz claims “speaks volumes for how this [study] made them feel.”

Though my dad didn’t join a professional Wii-hab program, playing the Wii has certainly improved his quality of life. Months of physical therapy had helped him learn how to eat and walk again, but it didn’t help as much with the finer aspects of recovery – strengthening his core, toning muscles, improving balance, etc. Then there were the things his doctors couldn’t teach him: how to regain confidence that he was in charge of his body and how to feel like himself again. In those respects, the Wii has done what nothing else has been able to.

Gaming has given me back my dad, the one I remember from childhood who could pick me up and carry me on his shoulders, who would scare away insects or check for monsters under the bed for me. My dad’s in Wii-hab, and I’m proud of him.

Lauren Admire is the Editorial Assistant at The Escapist.

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