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H4H is pioneering a new treatment strategy, but this is not uncharted territory. Video games have been used as therapy since at least the 1970s. Additionally, elements of games such as themed challenges, visible feedback, and goal-specific rewards are routinely introduced to therapeutic settings in a process known as gamification.
By their very nature, games increase motivation and therapeutic compliance, provide a safe space for learning skills, organically scale in difficulty with player improvement, and can provide extensive data points to the therapist in real time. VR adds to these qualities by being completely immersive; fMRI scans show the brains of research subjects reacting identically in VR when compared to a “real world” experience. VR can produce sensations of awe strong enough to raise goosebumps and can even stimulate memory recall in patients with dementia. These qualities provide effective user engagement and more efficient recovery.
Some therapeutic interventions are very specific. Clients with a fear of dogs might utilize an experience where they can slowly learn to play fetch with a virtual dog, while those in recovery from stroke might play virtual tennis or football using their affected side. Other interventions are more general - a host of memory games, object manipulation puzzles, and interactive experiences have been created under the general umbrella of cognitive recovery. Finally, some interventions are simply about what many think of as games’ primary function: fun. While it may seem frivolous, playing games solely for fun has a host of therapeutic benefits. VR games are an excellent source of distraction therapy, and can lower pain so effectively that they can be used instead of anaesthesia for a variety of procedures. VR also has time-dilation effects, meaning players can engage in therapy for longer sessions with less fatigue. And of course, any fun distraction can lower stress and increase mood, both of which can improve therapeutic outcomes.
H4H will utilize the latter two types of intervention, with an eye to help develop games and experiences for more specific outcomes in the future. Clients will have access to a carefully selected set of commercially available games, along with a knowledge base to help them understand the tools available to them. Games will be rated based on the level of energy output, whether it can be played seated, lounging, or fully prone, along with suggestions for its use. For example, clients interested in regaining lost muscle tone can utilise a selection of fitness games, while those looking for cognitive rehabilitation can try out a variety of puzzle games. Clients looking to just get out of the house can attend virtual events, go to VR chat rooms, or take part in a wide variety of virtual experiences.
Based on academic research and personal experience, we believe that this strategy will have a positive effect on mood and quality of life. Additionally, while this is not our primary focus, we also anticipate that there will be some reduction in self-reported symptoms and will be tracking all clients to determine if that effect exists and how significant it is. These data will be analysed at the end of the pilot and our results will be made available shortly thereafter.