It’s not rocket science to see the potential that video games can bring to the world of physical disabilities. There’s also a lot of research out there that talks about the benefits of gaming as it relates to cognition. I love that we’re seeing more and more research as it relates to health benefits and video games. The biggest and most controversial side of the gaming world is the mental health implications they can have on people. Most commonly, the attention is spent on the negative aspects of it all. This blog will focus on the opposite.

If you’re not familiar with the term psychosocial, it basically is a term that considers both the psychological and social aspects of a person’s character. The social aspects include things like one’s age, education, marital status, values, etc. People ask me all the time what my favorite genre of game is. The answer is co-op gaming. Why? Because of the psychosocial benefits that they offer. I’m a huge advocate of playing together because it builds relationships and gets people to interact with each other. Single player games also have a lot of benefits in the world cognition and problem solving, but I typically recommend people look for opportunities to interact and socialize with other gamers.

When I was deployed to Afghanistan, we all spent hours playing video games because of the potential that it had to take our minds off of our daily grind. Work was hard over there and definitely not pleasant. Our lives centered on all aspects of war. A lot of our guys would be out on missions to make local towns and villages safe for the Afghan people. Those missions would often lead to conflict. Those who weren’t typically out doing that type of mission were still in a support role that had it’s own challenging demands. Working with the Charlie Med (combat support hospital) and Forward Surgical Team, we saw a lot of the damage that war causes. It’s hard to get that stuff out of your head. Gaming was a good outlet for most of us.

I often invited a lot of our Joes over to our tent so we could find that mindless peace that could fill the gaps when we were susceptible to too much thought. Not only did video games fill that gap, it was also instrumental in building stronger teams. Morale increased, spirits lightened, and we all looked forward to the next time we could engage again. Games like Call of Duty, Halo, and Super Smash Bros. gave us all the opportunity to dive into another world where we could respawn and reset.

One of the fundamental practice areas as an Army Occupational Therapist is what we call Combat and Operational Stress Control. This is the mental health side of our profession. We used to call these type of injuries “shell shock” or “combat fatigue.” More recently, we refer to the mental health injury as a combat operational stress reaction or COSR. Our role is to evaluate the occupational performance of Soldiers adversely affected by combat stress reactions and implement interventions to enhance performance. We do this by helping to prevent maladaptive stress reactions (like smoking, drinking, etc.) and enhance positive adaptive stress reactions such as exploring possible leisure outlets like physical exercise or even playing video games.

The birth of occupational therapy was during World War I when therapists would take guys off the battlefield and engage them in normalized activities. One of the most important aspects was to do therapy in group settings because of the psychosocial opportunities it presents.

The key to all of this is to understand your audience. I knew that video games would be a popular outlet for an 18-35 year old population of Soldiers. It might not, however, be the biggest hit for a 70-90 year old aging population. The trick to being an effective medical professional is to understand whom that person is you’re working with.

Some of my fondest memories gaming while in Afghanistan was with our Brigade Physical Therapist (MAJ Jon Lesher) as we blazed through games like Army of Two and Red Dead Redemption together. I mentioned before that I loved co-op games best because it gives you a chance to focus your social output into one person. Building deep relationships with individuals is invaluable. A lot of games today can potentially throw you in a match with 20 other people who you don’t know. There’s not a huge opportunity for deep social engagement when so many people are involved. That said, there’s also a lot of therapeutic potential in that type of gameplay as long as you can have a running group of friends that can jump on board with you. On the drop of a dime, I can reconnect with any of my Soldiers by just turning on a system and shooting them an invite to play. It’s often all you need to meet those psychosocial needs.