Sitting in the middle of my hooch after a long day of patrolling the dangerous streets of Iraq was a welcome break. For the first couple of months, all we had to occupy ourselves were a few DVD players, a couple of handheld gaming systems, and a good ol’ game of spades. But, eventually, our forward operating base got a generator and with that came electricity. And with electricity came gaming! I never really understood the importance of gaming in the middle of the desert when mortars and rockets were streaming overhead on a daily basis. But looking back, how could I not see how important it was for me and the other infantry Marines I served with? Not only did it boost morale, but it brought a sense of normalcy and calm in an otherwise chaotic environment.
Several years later, I now have the fortunate opportunity to look back and enjoy those memories. The time I spent overseas had very few enjoyable moments, but the times that are filled with joy usually involve games in some sort of fashion. So it was my pleasure when I was able to sit down and talk with Glenn Banton, the Chief Executive Officer from Operation Supply Drop, and Major Erik Johnson, the Chief of Occupational Therapy for the Burn Center at the Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio, Texas.
Shortly after I left the United States Marine Corps, I was always curious about the beneficial effects of gaming. For several years, I was constantly using gaming as an outlet to relieve my anxiety, depression, and stress. I found comfort in sitting down in front of my PC or Xbox and killing a few hours playing whatever was my obsession at the time. But I really never put much thought into the fact that gaming was helping me in some way. It wasn’t until I spoke with the team over at Operation Supply Drop that it dawned on me that gaming was my therapeutic outlet. It was what was helping me get through my days.
When I spoke with Glenn, I was really curious as to his train of thought behind the vision of OSD and how he felt that the organization could help our servicemembers and veterans worldwide. He explained that “while gamers are part of the core foundation of OSD, in a typical company of say 150 Marines, only about 30 of them are actual hardcore gamers. Another 60 or so are casual gamers, around 40 play games in social settings, and then about 20 don’t play games at all. We don’t want to just focus on the 30 hardcore gamers, we want to help them all.” Surprisingly, this is exactly what I experienced in my company of 158. There were only a few of us that were constantly found hovering around a video game, the internet center, or a deck of cards. The majority of the company would partake in gaming of some type throughout the day but it didn’t consume them. And then there were a few that didn’t bother with it at all.
OSD recognizes the many benefits of gaming and is beginning to focus not only on providing gaming resources to our troops, but also the therapeutic benefits that it provides to our servicemembers and veterans. “Not only do games, of any form, provide a morale boost,” Glenn enthusiastically stated, “but you’ll be amazed at the psycho-social and occupational benefits, like range of motion and hand-eye coordination, gaming provides.”
For those unaware, one of the many amazing programs that OSD provides is the Supply Drop. In civilian terms, it’s a care package. However, it’s no ordinary care package. The care package that is sent to deployed service members, wounded warriors receiving care at a military hospital, veteran hospitals, and MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) Centers, is chock full awesome things like gaming consoles, tons of video games, and accessories that would make anyone receiving it truly ecstatic. OSD makes it their goal to provide at least 12 supply drops each month, not only within the United States, but also to her allies overseas, more recently British and Canadian forces.
But, OSD has much more than care packages and gaming in mind. A little under a year ago, in early 2015, OSD began to team up with a very influential and knowledgeable individual who had a particular focus on game therapy, Major Erik Johnson.
Erik had been around the military all of his life and his family had a proud history of military service. His great grandfather served in World War I, his grandfather fought in World War II and Korea, and his father served during the Vietnam War. It was these fine men that inspired him to continue the honor of serving the nation in some capacity so, in 1996, Erik enlisted in the Army. However, fate had an obstacle for him to overcome and it was at his first duty station, where he was involved in an accident and sustained burns on over 20% of his body, that his true purpose in the military began to unfold. He received treatment at the Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio and he began to soon realize that the best way for him to serve his country, the United States Army, and his fellow service members, was to become an Occupational Therapist. After several years of education and numerous awards and recognition along the way, Erik was commissioned as an officer in the United States Army and began working as an OT at the Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Augusta, Georgia. He continued his path of excellence while serving in various capacities within the Army and began to become known for his experience and expertise working with wounded service members suffering from brain injuries, amputations, burns, and behavioral health.
During this time, the Nintendo Wii was introduced to the world and Erik took notice of its medical applications right away. “It was the biggest revolution in gaming,” Erik says. “The Wii has numerous medical applications. It allows the user to engage using motion and this is where I saw the benefits. And it allowed my patients to engage in functional activity during therapy.”
For those of you who have played any type of game, the purpose of a game is to achieve something or accomplish some type of goal. And, while trying to achieve that something, the secondary goal of the game is to ensure that its users have fun; otherwise, the user will no longer continue to engage the game. “And that’s what I noticed when I first saw the Wii. During OT, your average patient is being pushed to move his fingers, stand up, walk a few steps, or simply engage in a meaningless rote activity, “ Erik said. “In some environments, it’s just a repetitive task that the wounded service member or veteran is trying to do but they may not see that end goal. With games, that goal or achievement is right there in front of their eyes and they’re having fun while they do it. That’s the whole point of occupational therapy – to have patients engage in therapy without thinking that it’s therapy.”
Shortly after the introduction of the Wii, Erik was tasked with developing a pilot program in Afghanistan where the primary mission was to screen and treat for mild traumatic brain injury (mTBI) for the 173rd Brigade Combat Team. This marked the first time in the history of war that a facility was stood up specifically dedicated to treating TBI in a combat environment and it was the first time an occupational therapist was deployed with a combat brigade. During his time with the 173rd, Erik introduced gaming as a centerpiece for therapeutic intervention. Including the Wii and XBox 360, Johnson explored and optimized the potential for peripherals and games as they could be incorporated into his program. Games that used the Wii Balance Board and the DJ Hero turntable demonstrated a huge potential for rehabilitating the types of injuries that he was seeing.
After coming back from Afghanistan, Erik was assigned to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as the Chief of the Amputee Section for Occupational Therapy. During his tour there, Erik noticed that many of his patients wanted to continue engaging in gaming despite their injuries. And it was during this time that Erik really began to engage with the military gaming support community. Erik began to collaborate with Ken Jones who was the lead of an organization called Warfighter Engaged which adapts controllers for wounded servicemembers and veterans with missing limbs. It was only a matter of time, when he became the Chief of Occupational Therapy for the Burn Center at the Institute of Surgical Research in San Antonio, Texas, that Erik was introduced to the team at Operation Supply Drop. OSD had the same mindset as Erik – using gaming as a tool to help servicemembers and veterans. With OSD’s resources and Erik’s knowledge, the partnership has taken on a very important and inspiring mission – to evaluate every game and determine its therapeutic benefit. “What we’re trying to do,” Glenn says passionately, “is to create a type of catalog of games and what therapeutic benefits each one provides. Basically, it’s like we’re providing additional value to the supply drops we send out to our troops.”
I never really thought about the value that each individual game provides. Honestly, every time I jump in front of one, my mind goes numb and I just set out to do whatever I need to do in the game before I call it quits. But, as Erik points out, “each and every game has some kind of medical or therapeutic benefit. Guitar Hero allows me to assess my patient’s gross motor grasp, and range of motion. Kinect Sports allows my patients who are amputees to perform endurance exercises. Super Smash Brothers and Fallout 4 work with cognition and fine motor skills. DJ Hero allows patients with brain injuries to hear music, operate the controller to the music, and engage. It’s all a beautiful medley of complex therapy.”
And what about the future? Erik mentions how Apple has begun to incorporate health into tech which engages people in day to day activities. And he already sees some of the future where augmented and virtual reality are playing a role in therapy. Amputees are being put in harnesses which allow them to move around in various scenarios yet still provide them with a safe environment where they cannot be hurt. “It will only be limited by the imaginations of the developers of the systems and the therapists that utilize them,” says Erik.
In the meantime, with the backing of OSD, Erik has been provided with the resources he needed to institute this ground-breaking mission of not only providing gaming consoles and video games to act as a morale booster, but also to showcase and apply the medical and therapeutic benefits that gaming provides to our nation’s servicemembers and veterans. As of now, OSD and Erik have begun implementing this at the Burn Center at the Institute of Surgical Research; however, they are starting to work with other institutes across the nation to stand up similar programs. The whole point of the partnership, in both Erik and Glenn’s eyes, is to assist in preventing or helping those injuries that may result in long term damage and to engage the medical community about the positive benefits games have in physical and cognitive therapy. And more importantly, as Glenn said, “we want our guys and gals to know we care about them before and after.”