- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 24, 2008

You don’t have to be a quick-fingered 15-year-old to be a “guitar hero.” That’s right, Guitar Hero — the wildly popular video game played the world over by Jimi Hendrix and Joe Perry wannabes — has become the latest tool in physical therapist Elizabeth Penny‘s arsenal when treating amputees and stroke victims.

“Video games are a great adjunct to traditional physical therapy,” says Ms. Penny, who works at the WakeMed Rehab clinic in Raleigh, N.C.

Guitar Hero is the latest in a string of video games, including WiiFit, whose medical benefits have won the oft-criticized pastime some grudging respect.

“They’re important socially, mentally and physically,” Ms. Penny says.

Guitar Hero, a game that enables the gamer to play favorite guitar music on a light plastic guitar look-alike while getting finger-placement cues on-screen, falls into the social and mental improvement categories, she says.

“I think it helps patients re-connect with what they enjoyed doing before they were injured,” she says.

One of her stroke patients, Lewis Creech, 40, lost all mobility in the right side of his body in May. A “gaming fanatic” before the injury, Mr. Creech is happy to be back playing video games as part of his therapy.

“I like it a lot. It was a lot of fun,” Mr. Creech says of Guitar Hero. “I think the foot pedal was a little too sensitive, but maybe I can get used to it.”

The Guitar Hero game Ms. Penny uses for her patients has been tweaked so that a stroke patient, such as Mr. Creech, can play even if one side of the body is paralyzed.

The tweaking was done by innovator Ben Heckendorn (www.benheck.com) to include a foot pedal to “strum” the guitar and control the whammy bar while the healthy hand does the chords.

“I hack things up and see what I come up with,” says Mr. Heckendorn from Verona, Wis.

In the case of Guitar Hero, he decided not to include all the game’s functions on one hand-held device.

“Your one hand has enough to do anyway,” he says. “It’s more difficult for the brain if one limb has to do several functions. … This way [with the foot handling the strumming and the hand doing the chords] you split up your brain load,” Mr. Heckendorn says.

Charles Huang, co-founder and vice president for business development of RedOctane, which makes Guitar Hero, says he’s thrilled with the idea of using Guitar Hero (even in this modified guise) for therapy.

“We spend all day making a commercial product,” Mr. Huang says. “So, when people modify and use games for therapy, it helps expand our thoughts of what’s possible.”

Mr. Huang says it brightens his day when he gets calls from gamers — and their parents — who are using Guitar Hero (whose sales by early 2008 had exceeded $1 billion in North America alone) for therapeutic use.

“Video games having a positive impact on kids is not what we usually hear,” he says. “It’s very rewarding to get those calls.”

Tweaked games often don’t make it to market because the demand is relatively small and the games may not make significant enough profits to make them worthwhile to game companies, Mr. Heckendorn says.

“The bottom line is — no matter how good the game is — it’s got to make money,” he says.

Ms. Penny uses at least 10 games in her therapies, including WiiFit, which enables patients to work on strength and balance through various yoga, hula-hoop and other exercises. She also uses Cooking Mama, in which the patient-gamer simulates chopping veggies, cutting meat and arranging items on a plate.

She says she started using video games in therapy about 15 months ago, and the results are promising.

“Gaming helps break the monotony of physical therapy,” she says.

Also, it helps get rid of discrimination, she says, because the patient-gamers can play online against people who don’t know they are disabled, which is liberating.

“They can play against and win against someone in France who has no idea they’re a stroke patient,” she says. “It gives them bragging rights. ‘I played Wii today, and I knocked someone out.’”

While much emphasis is put on physical rehabilitation, mental rehabilitation is just as important, Ms. Penny says.

“Our big concern is that people will sink into depression,” she says. “That’s why re-connecting to something that they enjoyed and were good at before the injury is so important.”

Mr. Heckendorn says he keeps this in mind when he does his “tweaking.”

“I’m not in the medical field, but it seems to me that how you feel mentally is a big part of therapy,” Mr. Heckendorn says. “I hope [Guitar Hero] can help make them feel like they’re back in the groove.”

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