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This Army therapist is using video games to help wounded warriors

Army occupational therapist Maj. Erik Johnson will use anything that works to help wounded warriors. One of the big problems he faces is how to get his patients involved in their own therapy.


Therapists have historically used activities like working with leather and copper tooling to engage patients, but that doesn't appeal to soldiers from the Xbox generation. Johnson, a gamer and former Army rehabilitation patient himself, found a way to incorporate games into therapy.

Army Maj. Erik Johnson plays video games with patients at the Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam Houston, Texas. Photo: courtesy Maj. Erik Johnson

"If I threw, you know, macrame in front of a soldier he might laugh at me," Johnson said in an interview with WATM. "But if I threw him at a video game, he'd be like, 'Yeah man. I love this dude. Hell, I'm gonna go like do everything I can to optimize my treatment.'"

The games used in therapy are carefully curated by Johnson who identifies what needs each could fulfill. DJ Hero and Big Brain Academy, for instance, are good for soldiers who have suffered brain traumas.

"One of the biggest things with concussions is that you have what we call executive dysfunction or basically, a big issue with cognition," Johnson said. "So like, your memory is not as good as it was. Or you have issues with problem solving. Or maybe you have issues with delayed response with your brain thinking to your hands moving."

So, Johnson can put soldiers recovering from a concussion or another brain injury in front of DJ Hero, which requires that the player keep to a rhythm, watch symbols on a screen, and anticipate the actions of others.

Big Brain Academy allows players to work on memory, statistics, analysis, math. And, it allows them to measure their progress.

"And the thing with Big Brain Academy is that it kept a record of everything you did," said Johnson. "So, if you built a profile, and you're like, 'Okay, yesterday was the very first time I worked on this, I was terrible. Today I'm a little bit better and in a week I'm doing fantastic.' Even if that's not standardized, you can still see them improving."

Big Brain Academy payed off big for Johnson and the soldiers under his care when he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2009 to set up a brain injury program inside a deployed brigade combat team. Stuck on an austere forward operating base, a simple game that could be set up in a hooch was a good tool to help soldiers recovering from a concussion or TBI.

Photo: Courtesy Army Maj. Erik Johnson

When Johnson got back to the states, systems like the Xbox Kinect and Nintendo Wii allowed him to target physical therapies with video games as well. For amputees who lost one or both legs, cardio is an issue.

"Our lower extremity amputees have a big issue with cardio. They haven't been able to run, and they start gaining weight and running is a lot more challenging for them. How are we going to engage them in a good cardio regimen?

"One of the things we noticed was we could put them on Wii Boxing and set them up on a therapy ball and they have to balance on the therapy ball which would strengthen their core and then also, they are doing a lot of engagement with  their upper extremities. And, anybody that has played any kind of Wii sport-type game that takes a lot of that effort knows that real quickly it gives you a good workout."

Amputee patients also got help from Ken Jones, an engineer who runs Warfighter Engaged and builds custom controllers for amputees.

"He'll modify game controllers or systems so that anybody could play on them," Johnson said. "Let's say you lose your left hand, well, he's going to bring all those buttons on your Xbox controller over to the right side."

Jones even made a custom controller for a quadruple amputee.

"Just by like pushing switches and big toggles and different elements like that, he basically made it to where anybody could engage in therapy. Well, I call it therapy, they call it gaming."

Building a gaming center for wounded warriors isn't easy. Luckily, Johnson got help from Operation Supply Drop, a charity that engages veterans and deployed service members through video games.

Glen Banton, the CEO of OSD, met Johnson and asked for his wish list, everything Johnson would need to create the perfect setup for treating wounded warriors with video games.

In Operation Supply Drop's largest single donation, they gave six video game consoles and plenty of other gear to Brooke Army Medical Center. Photo courtesy Operation Supply Drop

"So I started to do a lot more writing down, research on games. I would want this particular game for this application. I would want this for this application. And I started going down this list of different games that would do different things." 

"So Glen and his team, they came with OSD last week and blew me away," Johnson said. "I mean, like way more than I had asked for, way more than anticipated. My office is full of gaming stuff right now that I'm now trying to build an entire huge gaming center within out therapy gym so that it's actually almost a piece of medical equipment, that is its intended use. Before, we had roving televisions and we'd throw a system on it. Now it's like, I'm going to actually have a specified space where we go and do therapeutic gaming."

Of course, not all of Johnson's patients are video gamers. But for the ones that are, they have a therapist who not only wants to engage them with their chosen hobby, but has an awesome suite of tools to do it with.

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