How Video Games Salvaged My Brain

This is a part of my story. I will be writing another article to follow up. I’ve decided it would be a shame not to share it while I am alive. We’re made of our stories and only we can tell our truth.

I have posted this before but I always remove it, thinking it’s better that no one is aware of my history. I found that sharing trauma often attracts the wrong kind of attention. It’s not shameful, but it raises questions about my stability, which I admit is sometimes shaky emotionally. Prior to this event I was incredibly detached and indifferent to most humanistic circumstances, just cold logic. I came back unusually pristine and very quickly, but with a raised desirability to be in the company of others. In many ways I resent this need. I have reason to believe video games had a lot to do with my recovery. The entire ordeal was concluded within a year.

Before this had happened I was adamantly straight edge, as in I did not partake in any chemical compromising substances apart from my insulin as I am a type 1 Diabetic. My preexisting condition is largely the reason for my lack of experimentation with depressants such as alcohol. After I was discharged from the hospital, that surely changed, as time felt short and I wanted to experience everything I could before it was up. The story isn’t completely factual, such as names, I don’t know what my nurses name was. It was an entrance exam for college so I dramatized it a bit.

Crash

On the evening of January 9th of 2006, the day after my 19th birthday, I had forgotten how to talk and how to walk, my memory had been nearly wiped clean. Upon opening my eyes I found myself in critical care having suffered a traumatic brain injury in the result of a roll over car accident. I went through routine therapy sessions, but had discovered a unique therapy of my own that was very beneficial to me in both cognitive and physical rehabilitation. As for the accident, I was alone and little is known as to how it occurred, but it seems that I had driven off the side of a country road, my rare axle snapped, and the car flipped 5-6 times before being stopped by a telephone pole. My head impacted with the road through the sunroof, and I was wearing my seat belt. It’s likely I had fallen asleep.

I woke up in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar faces surrounding me. Is this Hell? Is it Heaven? Wherever I was, I knew I didn’t belong here. I scanned the sad and grim faces before me, searching desperately for one that I might recognize. They were all dressed in long white gowns with pens resting in their pockets, white medical masks draped over their faces, and light blue caps over their heads. They were talking among themselves; I could not make out what they were saying. A short, red-haired, female looked in my direction and upon noticing my consciousness came rushing to the side of my medical bed.

After she took a moment to check the machines monitoring my vital signs surrounding my bed, she looked down at me and said, “Welcome back”. She grinned broadly, displaying the white of her carefully polished teeth. I could feel her grip on my left wrist, the soft squeeze of her hand assuring me that I was back in the physical world. I looked back at her and I asked, “Where am I? What happened?” with a weak voice and desperate eyes. At least, that is what I wanted to ask; but when I tried to speak, nothing came out. It was explained to me that I had undergone brain surgery to my frontal lobe, they had to clean out blood clotting and use metal plates to close up my fractured skull. I had experienced a darkness that was pure bliss, they call it a coma.

I came to the horrible and frightening realization that I had forgotten how to speak! I knew the words that I wanted to say, I could speak them clearly inside my head, but they would not come out intelligible. Not only speaking, but I had forgotten how to walk too. I couldn’t get my feet to cooperate with my mind. I had forgotten two very important mechanisms, the ability to vocally communicate and to navigate my environment.

The girl, whose name I later learned was Jewel, gently pushed me back into the bed. She exited through the door to my hospital room, brushing past a few people with their arms crossed and concerned eyes looking in my direction. As I looked back at them, their faces began to take shape and I realized that I knew who these people were! Standing at the end of my bed were my immediate family members; my brother, sister, father and my mother. I tried to get out of bed once again, but as my father saw me struggle to get up, he put a forceful hand on my chest and said, “Take it easy. We’ll get you through this one”.

With that, Jewel reentered the room with a belt that allowed her to assist me in walking. She told me that I would be revitalizing broken connections (axonal regeneration and neural network reconstruction) in my brain for awhile, and with the right therapy to aid me I would be walking and talking normally again before long. I would need to remain in the hospital until I could fully operate on my own again; this didn’t settle well with me. I was bored and bedridden. To solve this mental torture, I asked my brother to bring in a video game system from home and set it up on the little television in my room.

The following morning I was excited and grateful to find my Playstation 2 with some of my favorite video games resting by the door of my room. I anxiously struggled into my wheelchair, proceeded to retrieve the system, and then with it secured in my lap I quickly guided myself to the television. I was happy to discover that I had not forgotten how to operate electronics; I had it setup and ready to play in no time. I had laid the games along the edge of my bed, making it easier for me to see all of my choices. I glanced over Guitar Hero and without a second thought I decided that was an appropriate choice for my situation. I could sit back on my bed and combine the harmony of music with steady interactions.

Crash

After I had inserted the disc into the system and plugged in my Guitar shaped controller, I was ready to begin. Just as I was about to load my first song, my assigned therapist entered the room to start my daily walking therapy session. I was a little bit disappointed as I turned off the console and climbed back into my wheelchair. “I’ll play tonight”, I thought to myself. She wheeled me down a series of halls and finally came to a stop with the back of my chair against a wall; she strapped a belt with a handle on it around my waste and helped me stand up. This took almost all of my energy! I was worn out just from standing up! I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d ever be the same.

After the walking therapy, I was handed off to another therapist who would help me rebuild myself cognitively. She had me read and write, solve problems and puzzles, and vocally recognize colors and objects. I knew something wasn’t right, as I attached names of colors with different visual colors. I would look at yellow, and I knew that it was yellow, but the word blue came to the front of my mind. My recognition and comprehension skills were not cooperating to make out the details. After all of these tests and activities, I was ready to sleep! I shivered at the thought of having to do it all over again tomorrow.

Finally, I was back in my room and the day was coming to an end. I quickly climbed into bed and prepared to sleep for as long as I could before I had to do it again. Then I remembered that Guitar Hero was waiting for me, but I wasn’t sure that I had the energy to attempt playing through any songs. I thought I’d give it a shot since I had trouble sleeping anyway, especially now. I turned everything back on and sat at the edge of my bed while I prepared to play. Before the accident I would play on the expert difficulty, so I decided to start there and regress if I needed to.

Wow! This was much too fast for me. I couldn’t keep up; my fingers just didn’t respond quick enough to match the colored notes on the screen to the colored buttons on my guitar controller. I went ahead and dropped it down to the hard difficulty. I was still having trouble. Once again I dropped the difficulty down to medium, this was still challenging but at least I could do it. I kept playing on medium until I felt confident to move the difficulty up another level, before long I was playing fluently on hard. After a few days I was back on expert and playing almost as good as I had before.

My therapists noticed a tremendous increase in attention, motor skills, recognition, reflexes and coordination. They couldn’t figure it out, where did this sudden surge in physical and cognitive response come from? I knew exactly where it had come from. I explained to them what I had been doing every night instead of sleeping. They wanted to know more, they wanted to study the effects it had on the brain and how it may be used in the future to help other patients recover from brain injuries. I wanted to help them; I too, saw the potential this relatively new and commonly practiced activity had to offer, in both education and medical recovery.

They educate by presenting the player with situations that require puzzle and problem solving skills, motivating them to work cognitively to advance in the game. They tell a story and introduce characters that may relate to the player, this provokes memory and recognition. Providing incentives, such as awards and story progress, motivates the player to achieve goals and further exercise their attention to the activity at hand. The diversity in tiered game difficulty challenges processing speed and adaptation to new elements. Certain game mechanics help train hand-eye coordination along with visual processing and muscle memory.

That is just how video games have helped my brain respond quicker and react more accurately. Video games are heavier on the intellectual properties of interaction, but they do exercise the body physically too. Depending on the type of game you’re playing, there are a number of peripheral devices to help you interact within the virtual worlds. There are games and controllers for dancing, playing instruments, fitness and even bowling. No matter what the game is, interacting with it will require the use of both your brain and your hands.

Crash

For example, take a first person shooter (FPS) title such as Team Fortress 2 or Unreal Tournament. The objective of these games is to defeat your opponents by shooting them before they shoot you. Sometimes scattered among your enemies are allies who would not appreciate you shooting them. This requires recognition and thought process. You don’t want to hesitate for too long, or you’ll lose the game; you want to make sure it is an enemy as fast as you can before you fire. This comes down to reflexes and hand-eye coordination. You don’t want to miss your target, or you could hit a friendly. Accuracy comes into play, and accuracy depends on your ability to place your cross hair over the enemy by using your motor skills.

Another example is with real time strategy games (RTS) such as Warcraft and Starcraft. They exercise resource management, planning and strategy. You must be a step ahead of your opponent at all times. Mathematical logic is essential to estimate how much it will cost you in virtual currency to build a larger and stronger army with upgrades to your unit’s armor and weapons to conquer the battlefield without depleting your natural resources. Using what you see on the battlefield to logically predict your challenger’s next move, where and how they will attack and how you will use what you’ve learned from their playing style to counter their strategies.

I was discharged from the hospital within a very short time because I recovered exceptionally fast with no discernible difference other than scarring to how I was before the accident. I believe that video games played a large role in my recovery. They challenged my mind and body in every way with fun and awarding activities with incentives. Once I had settled back in at home, I began researching the use of video games in other industries other than entertainment. To my dismay, they weren’t being used for much more than commercial gain. I noticed one result in my searches that stood out from the others; it was a charity to benefit children with blood diseases.

The idea was to provide a tournament setting with prizes for the winners as an incentive to participate in the charity. There was a very small fee to enter the tournament that went directly into the charity funds. It was completely non-profit. This inspired me to do something similar; perhaps for the hospital that took care of me. I decided to learn more about these kinds of events and continued researching. I stumbled across another charity convention that benefited children with autism. This made me aware of another use for video games, to raise awareness and support for those in need.

Along with being exploitable in charity and therapy, video games are simply fun and entertaining to occupy time with. It helps pass the time when a person is bedridden and contained in a hospital room for long stretches of time. This is harmful to the mind in many ways. It is a good idea to liberate the mind from boredom to ward off negative thoughts about their condition. If the mind is left unoccupied it tends to wander; designing theories and conspiracies, causing paranoia and depression among other unpleasant and negative thoughts. Video games offer a gateway into a world where their health doesn’t matter for awhile.

With the online capabilities of video game systems today, a patient never has to be alone if he or she doesn’t want to be. With the click of a button they can easily turn that world off and grant themselves the instant privacy and solitude that they may need or desire. A connection with the outside world will always be available in moderation; allowing the patient to ease back into a social life without it being more than they can handle. This feature can allow friendships to be instigated in a safe environment.

Video games have proven to me to be much more than just entertainment. They were my primary influence both cognitively and physically during recovery after I had suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury. The activities they had provided me with excelled my development and motivation to get better. They continued to aid me long after my initial recovery with thought provoking and inspirational ideas. I hope to someday be a part of the quickly developing video game industry.

Ridge Racer

Within months of being discharged from the hospital, I won 2nd place in a Ridge Racer tournament, awarding myself $10,000 in a cash prize.

From the author: This was written seven years ago. The video game industry has developed exponentially since then and is once again suffering the scrutiny of unwarranted political controversy. I thought I’d post this story publicly in their defense as a beneficiary and not a threat. They are fantasy, they are liberation from routine, they keep the imagination pristine. Medicating innovation, creation, expression and a whole culture of artistry. This is how video games salvaged my brain, dreams and future. I didn’t publish this originally because it was an entrance exam into college, and I didn’t want the world to pity me. Now I feel it would be useful as ammunition against offensive activism.