By Lisa BaertleinFri Dec 15, 5:45 PM ET
When 11-year-old Gus Luna was able to play one of his favorite video games while recovering from exploratory brain cancer surgery in intensive care, his mother breathed a big sigh of relief.
"It was brain surgery... it was so scary. That made me feel like things seemed OK," said Marcela Luna, whose son has been undergoing chemotherapy since last year, when surgeons were unable to remove his tumor.
Gus, an all-star soccer player and tae kwon do green belt, was president of his fifth-grade class before falling ill. Now being home schooled, he cannot imagine getting through his treatments without video games: "It would be really hard without this ... You never know what's going to happen next."
Games let him focus on something other than the illness, doctors and hospital visits that dominate his life.
Gus is being treated at Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, which is among 1,000 hospitals worldwide with video game Fun Centers that roll from bed to bed, just like regular hospital equipment.
"You're like a regular kid," he said. "You forget about needles, you forget about what's all around you."
NOT JUST KIDS STUFF
Over the last decade, researchers around the world have done hundreds of studies probing the value of video games and other forms of virtual reality to help children, and their parents, cope with medical-related anxiety and pain.
Results have been mostly positive and continue rolling in.
The University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine earlier this year published details from a study of 20 children having an intravenous line inserted.
Half of them underwent the procedure while playing "Street Luge," a fully-immersive virtual reality game in which players control characters who race downhill while reclining on a big skateboard. The children wore a helmet fitted with headphones and glasses that delivered game sounds and images. They also used a rumbling joystick.
Children who did not play the game reported a four-fold increase in pain intensity from the procedure, while those who used virtual reality distraction reported no change in pain intensity.
The University of South Australia's Center of Allied Health Evidence did a study of children with serious burn injuries and found "strong evidence" supporting the use of virtual reality-based games in pain management.
In similar fashion, doctors at Israel's Chaim Sheba Medical Center used Sony Corp (NYSE:SNE - news).'s (6758.T) PlayStation II EyeToy -- a camera that connects to a video game console allowing users to see themselves on TV -- as a rehabilitation tool for patients with severe burns. In a published article they said it proved to be an efficient and affordable alternative.
GAMING FOR GOOD
Nintendo Co. Ltd. (7974.OS) executive Don James designed the current Fun Center and said the company will start shipping units that include its new Wii video game console in mid-2007.
The Japanese game giant sponsors more than 3,500 of the 5,000-plus Fun Centers in hospitals through a program created and run by Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation, whose aim is to combat the isolation and fear experienced by hospitalized kids.
A donation of $3,250 covers a current-generation Fun Center with a GameCube console, flat-screen monitor and DVD player, as well as its lifetime upkeep, a Starlight spokeswoman said.
Jeffrey Gold, program psychologist for the pediatric pain management clinic at USC-affiliated Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, was on the team that did the university's virtual reality pain study and continues to research the subject.
Hospitalized children are in a foreign environment with none of the familiar comforts of home, he said.
"There is no normalcy. When you roll in a video game, there is some normalcy," Gold said.
Parents also benefit, he added. "If you have children and you see them in distress, then you're in distress. If they're more calm, you're more calm."
That's something all moms -- from Marcela Luna to movie star and author Jamie Lee Curtis, a Starlight proponent -- know first-hand.
Five years ago, Curtis' son was hospitalized with a ruptured spleen and nurses wheeled in a Fun Center.
"It made him forget he was in the hospital ... It changed our experience," she said.