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Video games support young patients’ social, emotional health

OHSU Doernbecher’s therapeutic gaming program provides distraction, fun and a sense of normalcy
Kids at Doernbecher Children's Hospital play newly donated Xbox systems and games
Lucas Alcantara, 7, says he enjoys playing video games while staying in the hospital. His favorite game is Minecraft Dungeons. (OHSU/Christine Torres Hicks)

On any given day, a patient at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital might receive a knock on their door. The hospital employee on the other side is there to ask an unexpected question: “Are your video game-related needs being met?”

Sam Giles Le Blanc - video game expert at Doernbecher
Sam Giles Le Blanc (OHSU)

That employee is Sam Giles Le Blanc, OHSU Doernbecher’s patient technology specialist — though he usually introduces himself as “the video game guy.” Giles Le Blanc manages the therapeutic gaming program, a new addition to the hospital’s Child Life Therapy Program.

Child Life therapy focuses on the emotional, social and developmental needs of kids, helping patients and their families cope with being in the hospital through play, education and creative activities. They understand that sick and injured children still need to have fun and play in the hospital, and video games can provide some of that sense of normalcy.

“The therapeutic gaming program provides an extra layer of support for patients and families here at Doernbecher,” said Rebekah Coles, manager of OHSU Doernbecher’s Child Life Therapy Program. “Offering an activity that will engage a child who’s in the hospital helps to increase their coping and overall aids in their social emotional health.”

Many of the patients who Giles Le Blanc visits are already video game enthusiasts, and they welcome the opportunity to browse the video game library and play a favorite game or try something new, often with a family member or Giles Le Blanc playing right alongside them.

“Gaming can really make young people feel at home in a way that not much else can,” Giles Le Blank said. “Video games provide an escape from things going on around them, but it’s also a way for kids to connect with their friends outside of the hospital — and when your life is turned upside down due to an illness or injury, that’s a really big deal.”

He finds that the program is beneficial for kids who are new to video games as well, and makes sure to offer plenty of multiplayer, cooperative games with a very low bar to entry.

“If something happens to you and you’re going to be stuck in a bed for a few months, you start rethinking your relationship with video games,” Giles Le Blanc said. “There comes a moment where a digital adventure would be helpful.”

“Minecraft Dungeons” is a favorite among OHSU Doernbecher patients, and Giles Le Blanc likes introducing patients to one of his personal favorites, a cooking simulation game called “Overcooked! 2.”

The therapeutic gaming program recently received a donation of eight Xbox Series S systems — preloaded with games — from a non-profit called Games for Love. Giles Le Blanc applied for the donation, which was administered through Fully Loaded Electronics.

“This is likely the single most generous gift our video game program has ever received,” Giles Le Blanc said. “We’re talking top-of-the-line equipment, and the scale of the donation means these gaming machines will impact the lives of thousands of kids throughout the years.”  

Giles Le Blanc’s position is funded through a program called Extra Life, a fundraising program of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

“Sam has a unique way of connecting with patients and families and meeting them where they’re at in the hospital,” Coles said. “He helps kids get up and move when needed, he provides company and distraction, and he even plays for the patients when they’re unable to do so. He provides so much social interaction, distraction, comfort and fun.”

It’s that sense of familiarity that makes the therapeutic gaming program one of 20-year-old OHSU Doernbecher patient Chance Wischnofske’s favorite things about the hospital.

“I like to play the Xbox up here because it reminds me of the one I have at home,” Wischnofske said. “If there was a video game that was created about me, it would have to be Venom because his moves are totally rockstar awesome.”

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