The picture of an average console gamer is often painted in liberal daubs with the stereotyping brush — reclusive nerds, fangirls, comic book guys who are eager to school you on the subtleties of Mario’s shell-throwing style.
But thanks to researchers at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), a new breed of gamers has emerged, and they’re radically different to the old-school Atari-lovers you might expect. Think octogenarians who spend their days slamming out a few rounds of Wii Baseball or retirees who tap out Dance Dance Revolution-inspired moves to the tunes of Louis Armstrong. And with these new players, games are being adapted and developed, all in the name of neurological research.
NeuRA is harnessing the power of motion-based console games in the treatment of brain injuries and to help with therapy and early intervention for elderly Australians living with limited mobility. At the heart of one of the key areas of research is the Nintendo Wii and the Nintendo Wii Sports game — gaming products that, to these scientists at least, appear to have been built with medical research in mind.
Leading a group in NeuRA’s Sensation, Movement, Balance and Falls division is Dr Penelope McNulty, a PhD graduate and research fellow who is dedicating her days to studying stroke patients with the help of console games. According to McNulty, the Wii has helped more than 50 of her patients by bringing an element of fun to the intensive therapy required post-stroke.
“After a stroke people tend to have weakness on one side of the body and that means that they can’t be independent in their everyday lives,” she said. “So I’ve used the Wii as a tool, rather than an end in itself, to help them in their rehabilitation. The idea is because it’s fun, they do it. And we know that most of our patients are either doing it with their children or their grandchildren, which is also a really nice way for the kids to become engaged in the process of the stroke.”
In the space of the two-week program, McNulty said all of her patients — low-functioning to high-functioning men and women aged from 16 to 83 — have made radical improvements with their therapy.
“We had one gentleman for who had to do the first day seated with only tiny little movements, even though he was trying so hard. And 14 days later, we have video of him standing up and he’s got this enormous movement with a lot of power and strength. [See video below for more].
“He was able to give back his walker, and within a couple of weeks, he was walking 1.5 kilometres each way to the shops every day. It’s really exciting.
“We see people and you can actually watch their depression lifting. We had one woman who said the best thing about therapy was that she could hug her husband with both arms for the first time since her stroke.”
Dr Penelope McNulty guides one of her patients through rehabilitation with the Nintendo Wii (Photographed by Anne Graham).
It’s a similar story for McNulty’s colleague, Professor Stephen Lord, who heads up a group that is developing a means to intervene before elderly patients with limited mobility have a fall in their home — a serious cause of injury with Australia’s ageing population.
Through years of research (conducted before the video game elements came onto the scene), Professor Lord and his team discovered that “strength, balance and coordination in particular were key risk factors” for falls, and that “exercise and balance training” could act as an early intervention.
Under the guidance of Lord’s colleague, Dr Stuart Smith, and resident PhD student, Daniel Schoene, the team has developed a series of mat-based exercises, set to music, that see patients stepping on sensors in response to visual cues, while researchers measure their speed, strength and balance.
Sound familiar? Yes, even the lab-coated adorned scientists at NeuRAa have heard of Dance Dance Revolution.
“It’s basically modifying that so it’s appropriate for older people in terms of the music you might provide,” said Lord.
“The concept is, ‘Can we train up quick and accurate stepping so that it generalises from the game to everyday life?’” If people can take a quick and accurate step when they lose their balance or they’re knocked off balance, maybe this is the difference between remaining stable and falling over.”
NeuRA senior research officer Dr Stuart Smith instructs a patient on using the modified sensor mat, which helps elderly Australians to prevent falls. (Photographed by Anne Graham).
The team started with older music from the likes of Louis Armstrong, but the researchers were quickly told they’d “gone too far back in time” and were asked to up their game with more modern music for their older patients. The request?
“We’ve got to move to rock and roll next time,” said Lord. “We over estimated!”
The research caught the attention of Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, who spoke about NeuRA’s groundbreaking work at a summit on the NBN and the Digital Economy in 2011.
“The leading cause of injury-related death and hospitalisation in the over 65 age group is falls,” he said. “As the population ages, this will place a significant burden on our health systems and aged-care facilities.
“NeuRA has developed a Fall Prevention Program to improve balance and motor skills, based on video gaming technology with remote monitoring by health professionals.”
The research was slated for “large scale delivery via the NBN”, and was announced as just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to using tech for the elderly.
“This sort of model, which will facilitate independence and dignity, is just the beginning,” Senator Conroy said. “As the NBN is rolled out we will see more online health trials like these, keeping people in their own homes and active contributors to their community.”
Back in McNulty’s stroke research group, the positive stories of recuperation and recovery come with a caveat. Each department only has a certain number of staff to conduct exhaustive research trials, which measure almost everything including “brain imaging…their muscles, their nerves and their skin” as well as deeper genetic causes of stroke.
A patient, playing Wii sports, is rigged up to sensors in NeuRA’s research facility.
In addition, funding is always a limit, both for NeuRA and the patients it serves.
“We have a lot of people who, because of their stroke, can’t work anymore, so they become financially very disadvantaged,” said McNulty. “And even though it’s such a cheap therapy, it’s beyond the reach of somebody who’s on a pension.”
So McNulty is calling on Australians from the other side of the gaming world — hardcore devotees who want to be the first to upgrade to a new console (such as the Wii U) and have no need for their old tech anymore.
“If people are saying they don’t want their Wiis, we would love them,” she said. “Nintendo is bringing out the Wii U, but for us that’s less interesting because it’s really a two-handed game.”
Many gamers opt to trade-in their old devices to offset the purchase price of the latest console on the market. But the Wii U is a unique case, as it utilises many components of the older Wii console, including the games, controllers and some accessories. Following the launch of the new Wii U model late last year, Appliance Retailer understands that the trade-in price of the superseded Wii unit can be as little as $25. With the financial imperative removed, the case for a benevolent donation is clearer than ever.
But McNulty doesn’t just want to get the message out to consumers — retailers selling these new consoles in electrical stores can also get in on the scheme. The hope is that, if they can make a suggestion to donate their old Wiis to science, NeuRA can help many more patients to regain their independence. And at the end of the day, patients who are having fun with their Wii are many steps ahead on the road to recovery.
“They say things to us like, ‘The hard work of therapy isn’t a chore any more’. We actually find people are doing more than we ask them to do, which is a therapist’s dream really, when people are that engaged and really enjoying it,” she said.
“We also get them sending in photos of their scores. It’s funny, we’ve had people who swear they’re not competitive, and then they’ll come in quietly one morning and say ‘I got a silver last night’.”
They’re sounding like seasoned gamers already.
To find out more, or to donate your old Wii console to the researchers at NeuRA, check out NeuRA’s “Rehabilitate your Wii to help stroke survivors” webpage.
Check out the video below, provided by NeuRA, to get a better idea of what the Wii Research involves.