How Games Made a Difference for One Person with Tourette Syndrome

There’s a growing push to use video games to treat mental health issues of all sorts, with research supporting those efforts on many fronts. Whether we can gameify depression or anxiety treatment remains to be seen, but treatments of some disorders already include game-like experiences. PTSD can be helped with virtual reality therapy and Tetris, for instance, and it’s possible that games could also be helpful for Tourette Syndrome.

Writing for ZAM, Mike Joffe shared his experiences with Tourette’s, describing the terror he experienced as a child when his body stopped responding to his instructions. For him, video games became an escape from the upsetting tics caused by Tourette’s.

Even the in-game deaths were calming. By now I was used to a life where my body might do something I didn’t ask it to do, or do something I did ask it to do completely wrong. It was frustrating, being unable to accomplish a certain task not because I wasn’t able to, but because my body wasn’t listening to me. Meanwhile, in well-made platform-game worlds, the characters responded perfectly to each command I made. If Mario died, it was because I didn’t make the right move, not because I tried to but he refused. It was comforting that whether I succeeded or failed in the game, it was consistent. Failure that I could understand was another reason to retreat into these worlds.

Escape wasn’t all they had to offer. In his teens, Joffe explored biofeedback therapy — still a fairly experimental treatment for Tourette Syndrome. With the help of an EEG and some very specific games, he was able to come to better terms with his tics.

One such biofeedback game involved a rocketship race. I was asked to concentrate on the rocket, and as long as my brain produced the right ratio of brain waves, the rocket would move faster. If I slipped out of focus, the rocket would drop in speed and the others would pass it. Another biofeedback “game” might work in the opposite manner. I would be asked to relax, and as long as I produced the appropriate delta brain waves, the non-copyright-infringing Pac-man knockoff would move away from the ghosts at a consistent speed and the music would play normally. If my OCD started kicking in and I began to hyper-focus instead of relax, the animation would become jagged and the music discordant and out of rhythm. Naturally, my brain wanted to experience the consistent music, and so was “tricked” into learning new ways to relax or focus. Both games would also monitor the theta wave activity, and if my brain started to produce too much of those, the on-screen activity would become jagged as well.

While there’s no way to “cure” neurological conditions like Tourette’s or OCD, as an adult I have virtually no physical tics anymore. The biofeedback therapy is not the sole reason for this, but if nothing else it helped make me aware of how that childhood terror of my body and subsequent retreat into the mind was based on a false dichotomy. A false idea that the mind and the body were separate entities at odds with each other.

ZAM has the full story, including Joffe’s description of his experience with Tourette Syndrome. If your image of the disorder is still informed by really bad comedy, you owe it to yourself to check out the full article.

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