Road to GDC: I’m Not A Doctor, but I Simulate One in VR

We are moving into a future where games train our doctors, monitor our health, and treat our illnesses.

Glass Brain Credit: UCSF

The sky is falling! Social media is the new scapegoat of the month. Headlines claim it is ruining our relationships, dismantling our society, destroying our very lives! In particular, the most frequent victims are presumed to be teenagers. Sometimes the accused culprit is not social media, but the phones that make it so accessible. Is it true? Only time will tell ... but in the '50s, the demon was comic books; in the '60s, rock and roll; and in the '80s, video games. My mother was convinced that my love of comic books and science fiction was going to rot my brain. Now, of course, these things are mainstream and no longer the sole domain of teens. But there’s always a new thing for people to worry about or blame for the decline and fall of civilization.

I’m particularly sensitized to that criticism of video games. I designed and programmed my first computer game in college in 1976 - in fact, inspired by that very love of science fiction I had as a child. When I graduated in 1980, my first job out of college was entering the then-infant video game industry. I’ve never left. So when pundits blamed games for destroying society, even causing teen violence and rebellion, I took it personally. I’ve always felt that video games can be magical, marvelous entertainment. I hoped that one day they’d be seen as not just safe, but actually good for us. That day is finally here.

Virtual treatment, real results
For many years now, researchers and doctors have gradually built up solid scientifically verified evidence that existing games can improve the lives of the people who play them. At the same time, increasing numbers of games have been created with the idea of ‘boosting health’ as a direct goal.

Fast action games like Call of Duty have been found to improve visual perception and the ability to make correct decisions quickly. Other research has shown promise in using a game to treat the underlying causes of depression. It’s possible that games may be able to diagnose the onset of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and perhaps even slow their progression.

Games have shown promise in the realm of physical fitness, too. Starting 20 years ago, the arcade game Dance Dance Revolution was credited with getting a lot of passive couch potatoes up, moving, and losing weight, and it’s still spawning sequels. Games on mobile phones like Zombies, Run! and Pokémon Go have encouraged players to get out and move in the world, and many track their exercise and calorie expenditure as they do so. VR holds promise here too, with the chance to get your exercise by racing the Tour de France on your exercise bike, or by flying like a bird. There are even current ventures bringing gameplay to gym class and possibly making dodgeball fun even for nerds!

Doctors with joysticks
It turns out that doctors in training, like most people these days, are often avid game players. That has presented a great opportunity for using them as part of their medical education. Although games have yet to replace classes, they’ve been shown to help laparoscopic surgeons reduce errors by 37 percent while increasing their speed by 27 percent when used as warm-up exercises. When you consider that athletes, musicians, dancers, and others who need to do precision work with their muscles all limber up before their tasks, it makes sense that the right kind of practice helps surgeons, too.

Other companies are rushing to use VR to train anesthesiologists or to give caregivers a first-hand sense of how their patients with macular degeneration see the world. The VR simulations aren’t all games, but the vast majority of VR engineers are coming from the games industry.

Prescribing play
Perhaps the most exciting application of games in the modern world are the ways in which doctors are using games to treat their patients. Realistic war games have helped soldiers recover from PTSD by simulating the experiences that trigger their problem, a method to gradually desensitize them to reduce their symptoms long term. Other games have been used in similar ways in conjunction with therapy to treat phobias like fear of heights, flying, and spiders. And currently, virtual reality games have shown great promise in pain relief for acute pain, reducing or even eliminating the need for narcotics when changing the dressings on burn victims. VR is also showing promise in helping stroke victims recover control over their movement, and in relieving the perception of pain in “phantom limbs” experienced by amputation patients.

Last September saw the FDA approval of a mobile phone app to be used (in conjunction with therapy) to treat addiction. The developers call their app a “Prescription Digital Therapeutic” and, although it’s not a game, it’s a big step to have software approved to treat something as serious as Substance Abuse Disorder.

But a real game designed to be an active treatment for ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) was not far behind. By December, the FDA gave preliminary clearance to a video game made by a team consisting of both game developers and neuroscientists from UCSF. In a large controlled trial of children and teens diagnosed with ADHD, the group who used the game showed significant improvement compared to a control group. The team hopes that soon it will become the first game to win FDA approval on the same terms as a prescription drug. In style, the game is part racing game, part Pokémon Snap, but with many unique twists to improve attention and focus.

We are moving into a future where games train our doctors, monitor our health, and treat our illnesses. It may seem a bit outrageous now, but if comic books led me into a career making video games and often become the basis of mainstream movies, why can’t video games inspire the next generation of doctors and become the basis of medical treatment? Video games are intimately connected to learning, attention, and the brain. It isn’t an accident that they are also proving to be useful to our mental and physical health. Maybe they’ll even be able to reverse my dreaded comic book brain rot!

This is part of a series of columns written by developers speaking at the Game Developers Conference in March.

Noah Falstein is a freelance game designer and producer, and was one of the first 10 employees at LucasArts Entertainment and Dreamworks Interactive. Last year he left Google after serving four years as their Chief Game Designer.