Video game controller

Gaming Technology Opens New Worlds for Science & Medicine

Canadian researchers are scoring high with apps & virtual reality for teaching & treatment.


Last week, the University of Waterloo launched a video game called Quantum Cats, designed to teach concepts of quantum science within the framework of an addictive phone app like Angry Birds.  But this is not the only recent report of video games taking centre stage in science and medicine.  Video games and virtual reality (VR) are increasingly used for training, education, and even treatment of medical conditions.

First person surgeon

Neonatal resuscitation is not something we want to think about, but it’s something that’s encountered relatively often for doctors.  About one million newborn infants die every year from asphyxia at birth.  The worst thing that can happen is for a doctor to freeze, too stressed to do anything in those few crucial moments.  Undergraduate students from the University of Alberta have developed a video game to try and prevent this from happening.

In the game, called RETAIN (Resuscitation Training for Neonatal Residents), players enter a delivery room to help with a neonatal resuscitation.  They are given certain hints as to the baby’s condition and they must make fast decisions to ensure the baby’s survival.

Trailer for RETAIN, a game that teaches neonatal resuscitation

Surgical residents are also being encouraged to play video games, not only to improve decision making in high stress situations, but also to train their manual dexterity.  Video games such as Underground were designed to train laparoscopic surgery skills in a more entertaining environment than regular surgery simulators.  They even sell a custom laparoscopic controller to interface with the Wii U game.

Of course doctors and surgeons are not the only ones that encounter high stress situations.  Video games and VR drills are also being used in the Canadian military for everything from small arms training to repairing equipment in the field.

Magic School Bus becomes virtual reality

Many Canadian universities already offer online courses, but Josh Maldonado of Toronto based Discovr Labs wants to make virtual learning much more “Magic School Bus”.  Instead of just looking at a Power Point slide about the circulatory system, imagine putting on VR goggles and entering into the actual blood vessel, seeing the different cell types flow by.  You definitely don’t want to stay home today.

Discovr Labs wants to create an interactive learning experience

Josh is a graduate of Ryerson University’s radio and television arts program, but many Canadian universities now offer research programs specifically targeting gaming and VR.  The University of Manitoba has a designated Clinical Learning and Simulation Facility while the University of Waterloo launched its Games Institute in 2011.

Quantum Cats, a collaboration between the Waterloo Games Institute and the Waterloo Institute for Quantum Computing, is also designed to teach while entertaining.   Similar to Angry Birds, players launch one of four “quantum cats” at stacks of blocks to save kittens.  Unlike Angry Birds, each cat is designed to teach a core quantum science concept such as uncertainty.

Quantum Cats is a game designed to teach core quantum science concepts

Better than Dr. Mario

Video games are also being used directly to treat patients.  Researchers at McGill have partnered with the video game giant Ubisoft and the company Amblyotech to treat lazy eye.  Lazy eye affects 3% of people worldwide and, if left untreated, is the leading cause of vision loss in adults under 45 years old.  Their game, called Dig Rush, requires cooperation between both eyes to complete tasks.  The 3D glasses allow certain objects to be seen only through one eye so both eyes have to work together to win the game.

Dig Rush forces cooperation between both eyes to treat lazy eye

Dr. Gustavo Saposnik at St. Michael’s hospital is studying how technology like video games and VR can help stroke patients.  Dr. Saposnik realized video games might be helpful for stroke rehabilitation while he was playing Wii with his daughter and decided to play with his non-dominant hand.  He improved surprisingly quickly.  “VR gaming technology applies principles from neurorehabilitation and enhances brain plasticity,” Saposnik says.  “More importantly, the integration of smart phone platforms with new technologies (e.g. Google VR cardboard) makes this interactive technology less costly and accessible for home use”.  Saposnik’s latest study, iHome, tested an iPad based balloon popping game for fine motor rehabilitation in stroke patients.

Clearly, video games are becoming much more than just entertainment.


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Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.