Video Gaming for Patients Takes Off at Hopkins Children's

Mabry and Chong

Erik Mabry, left, and Hon Chong demonstrate a little Mario Party 8 gaming.

Game Boys of Summer, Fall and Winter

Hon Weng Chong channels Oliver Twist as he emulates his famous plea for more porridge, but with a twist. “Please, sir,” says the new research intern, pulling a winsome face, “May I have another DVD?”

This, he says, is the young Johns Hopkins patient’s oh-so-antiquated need not only to rely on others for a video game to play, but to receive them one-at-a-time. In the brave new world Chong envisions, and hopes to help bring about at Hopkins Children’s, patients will not only have online access to video games 24/7, but be able to play them with other patients on the unit, right from their hospital beds.

Video gaming has become a chief resource of relaxation and occupation for Hopkins Children’s population. “The first questions of many children when we meet them are, ‘Do you have an Xbox? Sony PlayStation? Wii?’,” says Director of Child Life at Hopkins Children’s Patrice Brylske. “We’re moving from wheeling in a cart with gaming systems toward creating in-room video gaming. Hon’s helping us quantify the value of video games as tools for therapeutic interventions.”

A visiting medical student from the University of Melbourne and a current Fellow in the Division of Health Sciences Informatics at Johns Hopkins, Chong is studying the effectiveness of gaming in relieving pediatric patients’ depression and anxiety.

Hopkins Children’s own in-house gamer Erik Mabry, known as “the Xbox man” to many patients, is working with Chong on the development of a closed-system that allows patients to play games with others on their units. In avoiding the internet, a closed system avoids its multiple security threats. A professed ‘gamer’ since the age of 4, Mabry’s wildly versed in the intricacies of multiple systems, such as Xbox and Wii.

“Enabling kids to play with their peers could also lead to some socializing for them and it’s a system we can adopt in the new hospital,” he says, alluding to the Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center building, scheduled to open on the East Baltimore campus in late 2011.

Mabry was practically hired off the floor of a local electronics store six-months ago by Johns Hopkins Medical Institution’s director of Desktop Computing Service Steve Sears, impressed by Mabry’s manner and knowledge of the multiple gaming products he was selling.

“He wants Johns Hopkins to be at the forefront of developing these systems and brought me on to help set up video gaming systems for kids in the hospital,” Mabry says.

Which is what Mabry has been doing for six months now, replacing antiquated equipment on some units; setting up new Xbox systems; and making room-calls when a game won’t work or something goes awry. “I’ve been playing video games since I was little, so I can really sympathize with these kids. When there’s a problem: you need it to fixed now. They’re under enough stress already.”

“We love him,” says Brylske of Mabry, who’s sort of on loan from Desktop Computing Services. “We want him to keep him. He’s our go-to-guy when patients need help setting up a game or a troubleshooter. We’re hoping we can keep him with us as a full-time tech. I certainly don’t know how to set up “Guitar Hero,” neither do our nurses.”

But Mabry does. On the adolescent unit, he pulls two of the game’s “guitars” out of the box. He hands one to Marvin Elliott, 21, then shows him how to play. With multiple adjustments to equipment, wiring and the hospital room’s TV, the two are soon playing dueling guitars. “This is great,” says Elliott, a slow smile forming, as he picks his way through the song, following the TV video displays.

One late summer morning at Hopkins Children’s, Mabry and Chong took the controls and squared off against one another in a game of Mario Party 8, an interactive board game on the Nintendo Wii. In the playroom with them was a photographer to capture images of “kids” at play for a brochure on the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation’s “Health Games Research” program, dedicated to increasing and strengthening the design and implementation of electric games to encourage better health behaviors and health outcomes.

In his research, Chong works with both Child Life and Harold Lehmann, director of the medical informatics at Johns Hopkins and Arun Matthews, director of Hopkins’ Project HOPE (Hospital-Based Online Pediatric Environment) and a Research Fellow in the School of Medicine's Division of Health Sciences Informatics. In 2005, with a grant from the foundation, Matthews oversaw the installation of Xbox gaming systems in Hopkins’ pediatric hemodialysis unit in 2006. The popular game console had a chat mode that allowed patients to communicate with their peers in the room. In follow-up studies, Matthews showed that video games were safe and cost effective in inpatient units.

Today, Chong is studying the multi-systems’ effectiveness as depression- and anxiety-related therapy for those patients and helping develop a wireless network system on Hopkins Children’s adolescent unit that connects multiple Xbox 360s. They were purchased with funds from the Project HOPE initiative; a Child Life fund; and private donations.

Working with gaming in the hospital environment, whether as a technician or collaborator in studies like Chong’s, is “a heaven-sent opportunity,” says Mabry. He tells the story of a young child hospitalized with newly-diagnosed epilepsy, who, for additional testing, had to remain awake throughout the night. Mabry loaded a cart with Wii and Nintendo DS games and wheeled it into the child’s room, where he stayed to set things up and play some games with him. “This was a ‘priority one’ for me,” says the 26-year-old. “I’ve always wanted to help people. Mine is really the dream job.”