One wouldn’t immediately think to use First Person Shooters as a brain rehabilitation technique, unless of course you are Alexandra Vakili from Macquarie University in Australia. He is the lead researcher on a remarkable study which investigated whether video games such as Halo, Call of Duty and Doom could improve the functioning of cognitive processes damaged by traumatic brain injury.
Traumatic brain injuries are a major cause of death in the US and amount to approximately 30% of all deaths from injury (CDC, 2016). Even if a TBI is not fatal, the risk of permanent brain damage is high; this is particularly so if multiple brain injuries such as concussion are experienced within a short space of time, as is the case with many American Football and Rugby players.
As such, effective rehabilitation programmes are vital to ensure that those who suffer with TBIs are able to live as normal a life as possible following the injury. Video games have long been shown to have beneficial effects on cognitive processes such as executive functions and processing speed, attention and multi-tasking. Dr Vakili hopes that these improvements could be applied to individuals who have reduced cognitive functioning following a TBI.
According to Headway, men are 1.6 times more likely than women to be admitted to hospital for head injury in the UK and statistics by Statista show that men also make up 59% of the gaming population. As such,it is no wonder that Dr Vakili turned to video games when finding a new treatment for TBIs.
31 participants who had suffered a TBI were recruited to the study. Baseline measures of a number of cognitive processes were assessed, following which the participants were asked to attend a weekly two-hour group rehabilitation session over an 8 week period. During each session they played Medal of Honour: Rising Sun and were given a short educational programme about brain injuries. Death count and shooting accuracy were recorded during each session as a measure of progress.
After the 8 week programme the participants’ baseline assessments were repeated to assess any change. Their performances were also compared to a treatment as usual control group.
Dr Vakili found that participants in the experimental group showed a marked improvement in game performance following the 8 week programme, and compared to the treatment as usual group they showed significant improvements in an attentional blink task.
These results indicate that video games may be a very effective way of improving cognitive skills following a brain injury. Unfortunately the small sample size (and a large drop-out from the treatment as usual group) means that further research is required before any firm conclusions can be reached. It is also important to note that different video games are likely to promote different skills, and some will be much better than others at doing so.
“What we need now are larger randomised controlled trials in this area, to build on the positive results reported by the participants. The potential that action gaming has to help this set of patients is really exciting.” – Dr Alexandra Vakili
Nevertheless, research such as this study may lead to more novel and user-friendly treatments for people with traumatic brain injuries, and may even prompt game developers to tailor their products to promoting cognitive strength and flexibility.
To find out more about the research, take a look at the original journal article here.