Catfish bites dog

Video games that ease pain

Can video games ease real-life pain? Over at Scientific American, there’s a really fascinating article by a pain expert at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She and her colleagues have been taking burn victims — whose treatment, involving the stretching and swabbing of horribly-scarred skin, is unimaginably painful — and putting them inside virtual-reality games during treatment.

It turns out that the games can be very good at mitigating pain, because pain is partly psychological: The more our minds are distracted from focussing on the pain, the less pain we feel. Doctors have known for years that music has the same effect. Interestingly, not all games are the same. Patients playing a racing game reported no drop in pain levels, while those immersed in “SpiderWorld” said their pain dropped by half.

The researchers even created their own game specifically for burn patients — “SnowWorld”, where players glide through ice canyons and shoot snowballs at penguins, snowmen, and robots. They’re working on a sequel:

SuperSnowWorld will allow two people to enter the same virtual world; for example, a burn patient and his mother would be able to see each other’s avatars and work together to defeat monstrous virtual insects and animated sea creatures rising from the icy river.

That’s strangely lovely image — a game where a parent can play alongside their child, walking around in a virtual world intended to help ease their pain. One of the most scary and troubling things about pain is that it’s solitary: Parents always wish they could somehow relieve their child’s pain by absorbing it themselves, or somehow participating in it. Being able to slip into a shared world during a scary medical procedure is as close as you can get. I’ll be interested to see if it offers any greater palliative effect.

It also reminds me of “Child’s Play,” the insanely cool project that the guys at Penny Arcade organized last year — where they raised $27,000 to buy toys and video games for sick kids at the Seattle Children’s Hospital. They’re going to be remounting it this year, so when they’re back online in a few weeks, donate if you can!

(Thanks to Plastic for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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