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Video Games as Therapeutic Tools for Occupational and Physical Therapy: Fad or Fact?

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2 Seniors playing video games during occupational therapy

The integration of gamification in physical and occupational therapy has been a longstanding practice, but there’s a growing trend toward using actual video games. So, you may be wondering, are video games really worth incorporating into your repertoire as a valuable therapeutic tool, or are they just another passing trend? Let’s dive in and explore if video games as therapeutic tools are the real deal or just a fleeting fad.

Why Are Video Games Being Used?

Ever since the introduction of video games, studies have been conducted to explore their potential use in physical and occupational therapy. While early video games in the 1970s may not have shown significant benefits, the technological advancements of the 1990s and 2000s brought about a glimmer of hope, particularly for elderly individuals struggling with balance issues and stroke survivors. Moreover, as video game technology becomes more affordable and accessible, its use in therapy is becoming increasingly widespread.

It is important, however, to approach these studies with a certain level of skepticism. When considering only studies with randomized controlled trials, the number of reliable and rigorous studies is limited. Nevertheless, there are some promising findings that warrant further investigation.

One of the main reasons video games are incorporated into therapy is because they seamlessly merge with the concept of gamifying treatment. Most people find video games highly entertaining, which increases the likelihood of clients sticking with their treatment regimens. Additionally, video games are designed around the core principle of learning and improving specific skills. This aspect of gameplay makes them an ideal fit for physical and occupational therapy, as it involves repetition without causing fatigue. Furthermore, while failing at a video game can be frustrating, it remains separate from real-life challenges. This detachment can be particularly beneficial for clients who struggle with basic skills, as it allows them to experience a sense of accomplishment and progress. For example, someone who has difficulty holding a fork may feel frustrated and depressed because they struggle to feed themselves without creating a mess. However, failing at a video game is far less disheartening.

Furthermore, video games can offer real-time feedback and performance monitoring, allowing therapists to assess and adjust interventions accordingly. Data collected during gameplay can provide valuable insights into the patient’s progress, enabling therapists to track their performance and make evidence-based decisions on the course of treatment.

The potential of video games in therapy should not be underestimated. While further research is necessary, their ability to engage and motivate clients, as well as provide a safe space for skill-building, makes them a valuable supplemental tool in physical and occupational therapy.

Are Video Games Good for Physical Therapy?

Incorporating video games into a physical therapy treatment plan can be a game-changer for clients (pardon the pun). Not only do they assist with fall prevention, fine motor skills, balancing, and light strength training, but they also provide a dynamic and engaging way to practice these skills.

Research conducted by the University of Essex has shown the effectiveness of using a Wii as part of fall prevention training. Additionally, a study from 2010 by Elon University researchers discovered that “exergames” can have a substantial impact on both balance and strength.

And here’s the exciting part: video games aren’t just for the younger generation. Seniors can also benefit from them. While there may be a learning curve for those who haven’t gamed before therapy, the enhanced engagement and motivation they provide can lead to higher participation and better outcomes.

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Are Video Games Good for Occupational Therapy?

Video games have proven to be beneficial for occupational therapy. When integrated into a treatment plan, therapists can effectively use video games to assist clients in their recovery from stroke, brain trauma, or spinal cord injuries. The majority of video games are designed to be played while seated and using your hands, making them particularly helpful for clients with limited mobility or poor stamina who can begin their recovery exercises sooner.

Video games for occupational therapy serve as a valuable tool for developing fine motor skills and enhancing dexterity and hand-eye coordination. Moreover, they can aid clients in improving cognitive abilities such as problem-solving, memory, and attention, which is particularly promising for elderly clients. Video games can be used to foster social skills such as communication, collaboration, and teamwork. Some therapists even incorporate video games to assist clients in emotional regulation, including mindfulness, relaxation, and managing anxiety, stress, or depression.

What Kind of Video Games Should Be Used in Physical and Occupational Therapy?

This decision ultimately depends on the needs and preferences of your clients, as well as your budget. The Nintendo Wii has gained immense popularity due to its user-friendly motion controls, affordability, and fun-filled games. With additional accessories like the Balance Board, it can become an invaluable tool for physical therapists, promoting light exercise and enhancing their therapy sessions.

If your clients require more precise motor skills training or cognitive treatment, a more traditional gaming platform may be better suited for your requirements. We recommend conducting thorough research to identify consoles that offer games tailored to your therapy plan, ensuring that the controllers’ ergonomics are suitable for your clients’ needs.

While the gaming industry still has progress to make in terms of accessibility, there are games available that incorporate settings specifically designed to assist individuals with various disabilities. Additionally, there are specialized accessibility controllers designed for people with cerebral palsy and other disabilities, which can greatly benefit your clients.

Virtual reality (VR) games are currently being studied for their ability to simulate real-life environments, creating interactive and immersive therapeutic experiences. Clients can use VR to improve mobility skills such as walking or navigating stairs. However, it is important to note that VR technology is still in its developmental stage within the gaming world, resulting in a limited selection of games and accessibility options. Furthermore, VR headsets can be quite expensive.

The Challenges of Incorporating Video Games into Physical and Occupational Therapy


As we previously discussed, finding video games that can accommodate certain injuries or disabilities may prove to be a challenge. However, rest assured that there are options available, albeit requiring some thorough searching. It’s important to note that some individuals may struggle with the motions on the screen, causing them to feel nauseous or disoriented. Virtual reality (VR) experiences, in particular, have gained notoriety for making people uncomfortable and inducing nausea. Moreover, some users may find the sensation eerie, especially when using a controller to perform tasks such as backing up while their legs remain stationary or feeling a sense of falling when standing.

It’s worth mentioning that there are individuals who may have never fully embraced gaming or stopped early on, and this is not exclusive to seniors. Consequently, it may be necessary to provide guidance on how to use the controller or play the game effectively. While gamification is generally enjoyed by most people, some clients may hesitate at the idea of being instructed to play games instead of using more traditional methods.


Furthermore, although older systems may come at a lower cost, the expenses associated with purchasing consoles, games, and controllers can be quite high. Smaller practices might not have the financial resources to include video games as part of their therapy equipment, while larger practices could face challenges in gaining approval for such investments.

Time Spend Doing Research

Even if you’re an experienced gamer, using video games for entertainment purposes is quite different from using them as therapeutic tools. In order to effectively incorporate video games into your treatment plans or HEPs, you will likely have to invest countless hours researching consoles, controllers, and games to identify what could truly benefit your clients. While it may be enjoyable, this can add even more to an already full plate for therapists who struggle with maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Although video games do not replace physical or occupational therapy, they have shown promising results when used as a complementary tool in treatment plans. Physical and occupational therapists might consider incorporating video games as part of their equipment or assigning gaming exercises to clients who already own them.



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