Bryan Raudenbush, an associate professor of psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, had subjects immerse their hand and forearm in a bowl of icy water and report how much pain they were in every 30 seconds.
Raudenbush found that subjects playing action- and fighting-based games, especially with a first-person game view where they feel they are in the middle of the action, kept their hands in the water bath for more than a minute longer than people playing puzzle or sporting games, as well as reporting feeling less pain.
Other studies have turned up similar results.
"First-person fighting action games are so mentally demanding," Raudenbush said. "The pain doesn't feel as bad."
But harnessing the distracting qualities of dynamic, action-filled video games could give them new potential for pain management. Other studies that turn up results similar to Raudenbush's propose using these games in conjunction with painful situations such as injections or getting burn treatment to help patients cope with their pain.
"I can very much see games having a placebo effect of sorts because of their engaging nature," said Quinton Miles, 25, editor of GameArgus.com, a blog for video game enthusiasts.
Ben Sawyer, a gamer for 30 years and co-founder of the Games for Health project, an initiative to bring together game developers and health-care professionals, believes video games have a definite place in health care.
In addition to the distraction qualities of more sedentary or hand-held video games, interactive and physical games like "Dance Dance Revolution" and the Nintendo Wii can be beneficial for rehabilitation and for exercise.
"As games mature … and become about more than just moving your thumbs … it won't be the same discussion," Sawyer said.