Slave to the Game

Filling you in on the oddball gaming news

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Physical rehab can be a major pain, but it’s all a game to Jerry Pope.

Pope, a 77-year-old semipro tennis player, suffered a debilitating stroke in June and is using a video-game system to help him get back onto the real court. He’s one of several patients using the Nintendo Wii as part of an innovative program at the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.

“I’m not a video-game player,” Pope said during a recent rehab session at the hospital. “This is the only one I’ve ever played.”

Gripping the Wii’s motion-sensing wireless controller in his right fist, Pope swung his arm as if hitting a real tennis ball. The character onscreen responded by hitting the ball to a computer-controlled player in the virtual tennis game. Pope swung his arm each time the ball returned, and his Wii avatar responded in kind.

“Because of the interaction of the game, I get the physical sensation of playing tennis,” Pope said. “It really works. It can fool me into thinking that I’m doing what’s happening on the screen.”

Pope has been playing tennis for 60 years. His prowess on the senior circuit earned him induction into the U.S. Tennis Association’s Northern Hall of Fame in 1999. He was in Indianapolis for a national tournament when the stroke hit June 1. He was hospitalized there for 13 days before being moved to the Twin Cities for a 10-day hospital stay.

“He couldn’t even stand up,” his wife, Gloria, said. “His whole right side was shot.”

Just a few days after the stroke, Pope started traditional rehab to regain the use of his body, but he detested many of the repetitive exercises.

That’s where occupational therapist Matthew White came in. He thought the physical movements required to play games on the system would make it a good fit for rehab.

Sister Kenny has used other high-tech gear for rehab as part of its advanced rehabilitative technologies program, which dates to 1995. Much of that equipment costing thousands of dollars, so the $250 Wii was a relatively easy sell.

The Wii makes rehab fun, motivating patients in their recovery, White said.

“It’s just one more tool I have as a therapist,” he said. “It’s one more way to challenge Jerry.”

The Wii was released in November and became an instant sensation. The system’s use of broader human movement to control video games rather than just button-pushing dexterity has made it a hit with people who have never played games before. But although the Wii was designed for entertainment purposes, increasingly it is being used in practical applications.

“We’ve seen reports of soldiers returning from Iraq using Wii as part of their rehab and a way to help them heal,” said Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo’s vice president of marketing and corporate affairs. “We’ve heard directly from several cancer patients telling us the Wii is an integral part of their recovery and rehabilitation, and it makes a huge difference in their spirits. It’s especially helpful when most of the people using it for these kinds of reasons can’t get out of their homes easily.”