July 5, 2010 -- Like many other 5-year-olds, Isabelle Wurmser loves to play with her Nintendo DS, which is just fine with her mother, MaryTara Wurmser.
Isabelle has to wear a patch for four hours a day, and for one hour while she wears the patch, she plays her Nintendo DS. During the other three hours, she works on craft projects, solves puzzles -- and does anything else that requires manipulating small pieces.
Her mom says the handheld video game has really helped Isabelle, because it improves her hand-eye coordination.
"I don't think it's as much the actual game as it is the action of trying to focus on the tiny screens and use the stylus," she says. "Her vision went from not seeing the big hand on the eye chart to 20/30 in a year."
The Plus Side of Video Games
While there's a wide body of research on how video games can lead to a decreased attention span, violent behavior and obesity in children, there hasn't been much research on how video games can make a positive contribution to children's health and well-being. But doctors agree that the Nintendo DS and other video games can be a very effective part of the treatment for amblyopia.
"Handheld video games engage the child with regard to fine motor and visual skills," says Dr. Melanie Kazlas, director of pediatric ophthalmology and strabismus service at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. "It helps prime the visual pathways to the cortex, the part of the brain that allows us to see."
Doctors say video games are even better than physical activity.
"Doing an activity with fine detail and one that requires attention is better than playing outside, because a child's attention is not engaged visually," says Kazlas.
Isabelle especially likes to play the "Smart Girl" series of games for the Nintendo DS, as well as the Zhu Zhu Pets game. Both games require a high degree of accuracy and focus to achieve the desired results.
"These two video games ... involve a high level of attention and arousal. The fact that your brain is going to learn goes up, and it's more likely to remember something if you're alert and paying attention, which will help your brain learn how to see," says Dominick Maino, an optometrist and professor of pediatrics/binocular vision at the Illinois College of Optometry and the Illinois Eye Institute.
Games Keep Kids Interested and Engaged
Another advantage of handheld video games is their ability to improve children's compliance with wearing their patches.
"Trying to put a patch on your child's eye for four hours is just not fun, especially with a little girl," says MaryTara Wurmser.
After playing with her DS became linked with wearing her patch, things changed.
"The DS is fun to play, so if it's something you can do when you wear your patch, that's a big motivator," says Wurmser. "She was like, 'Ooh -- I get to play a video game when I have my patch on,' and once they start playing that game, the patch time is over quickly," she says
Doctors say amblyopia is very treatable, butt here must be follow-through.
"The most common reason for failure is the child doesn't want to put the patch on," says Kazlas. "But by having a game that's visually interesting, compliance goes up."
Video Games Are Just One Option
While many parents and doctors agree that handheld video games like the Nintendo DS can help improve an amblyopic person's vision, that improvement can happen only if video games are part of a larger regimen.
The length of time a person wears a patch varies, depending on the severity of the amblyopia, and whether or not a child plays video games and for how long are up to the discretion of the doctor and patient.
Isabelle, for example, plays with her DS for an hour and does other activities that stimulate her visually for the rest of the time she wears her patch. There are also computer programs designed specifically for people with amblyopia.
Video Games Can Help More Than Amblyopia
And since there are parents who object to their children playing video games, there are other things they can try as well.
"Go to the toy store and find activities there, like 'Where's Waldo?' or something else depending on the age of the child," says Maino. "If your child engages in a high-interest task, that's fine."
Video games may help other visual problems too. At least one study found that adults who played action video games such as "Call of Duty 2" showed an improved awareness of contrast.
While this study focused on people with otherwise good vision and no signs of amblyopia or other problems, it perhaps provides further evidence that video games can be good for the eyes if played in moderation.
"It makes sense, because the games are new and novel and are visually arousing," says Maino.
With 2 to 4 percent of children affected by amblyopia, doctors say it's a problem that needs to be addressed, and if video games are a way to improve a child's eyesight, then that's fine with them.
"Compliance is the key to success, and if handheld video games can improve compliance, it will be a wonderful help to this major public health issue in kids," says Kazlas.