Bandit’s Shark Showdown Aids Stroke Survivors

Recently, I wrote about a game called Project: EVO, which seeks to treat childhood ADHD without the use of medication. It’s the flagship release in creator Alkali Interactive Lab’s Electronic Medicine ™ movement, but the intersection of STEM and gaming with an eye towards medical intervention is being explored throughout both industries. One of the newest titles comes from Johns Hopkins University of Medicine and has a truly unique application. Bandit’s Shark Showdown is a game intended to rehabilitate stroke survivors.

bandit-shark-robotic-arm (2)
A robotic arm controls Bandit

The brainchild of Johns Hopkins’ Brain, Learning, Animation, Movement Lab –fittingly abbreviated as BLAM! –Bandit’s Shark Showdown utilizes a robotic arm and motion-capture technology to help stroke survivors relearn and rehearse their motor skills. A “sister version” of the game has been developed for patients with impaired arm mobility –a robotic sling helps track arm movement to control the dolphin’s movement. Players control a dolphin (the eponymous Bandit) as he navigates his way through the ocean while battling sharks and hunting mackerel.

An estimated 8 out of every 10 stroke survivor will develop hemiparesis. In its mildest form, it is simply a weakness localized to one side of the body, but at its most severe, could be full paralysis of the affected side. In the first three months following a stroke, the patient’s brain undergoes a massive period of growth and restructuring. It’s similar to an infantile or developing brain where stimulation and exposure can lead to incredible changes on a molecular and physiological level.

How Hemiparesis Affects the Body

An intervention such as Bandit’s Shark Showdown sets an engaging framework for recovery: patients solidify the connection between brain and body by practicing motor skills and taking in a novel experience. Further, it’s a creative outlet for a type of physical therapy that doesn’t feel like work. The game has the opportunity to entertain patients for hours and encourage them to work on their motor skills in a safe, positive way.

As John Krakauer, the game’s co-creator (and leading neurologist and neuroscientist for BLAM!), told The New Yorker, “There’s no right and wrong when you’re playing as a dolphin. You’re learning the ABCs again –the building blocks of action. You’re not thinking about your arm’s limitations. You’re learning to control a dolphin. In the process, you’re going to experiment with many movements you’d never try in conventional therapy.”

Bandit’s Shark Showdown could revolutionize how stroke survivors are rehabilitated and is one more example of how gaming and medicine can work together. For a much more detailed write-up of Bandit’s Shark Showdown, its creators, and development, you can find Karen Russell’s article for The New Yorker here.

Tell us what you think! Do you expect to see more game-based therapies in the near future or do you think traditional modalities are still the best course of action? Leave us a comment –we’d love to hear from you!

Written by Shannon Annarella

has studied screenwriting, psychology, and even Harry Potter while at Chapman University. Now in her third year, she can finally add video games to the list. In between writing articles, Shannon is spending her semester embarking on RPG quests and co-developing a Skyrim mod.

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