By day, Dr. Frederick Chen is chief of family medicine at Harborview Medical Center. By night, he’s an avid gamer. This passion led to a stint moonlighting as a magazine advice columnist answering gaming health questions. His monthly column “Ask Dr. Gamer” launched in 2006 in the Official Xbox Magazine and ran for a couple of years.
Working out a disclaimer came first. “I’d get a question from a guy that experiences chest pain every time he played Doom 3,” Dr. Chen says. “You’re hoping that you’re not their only source of medical care. How reliant are they on your medical advice? You have to think about it. Have you created a real therapeutic relationship with your reader?”
The Official Xbox Magazine existed from 2001 to 2014, back before most gaming conversation moved to YouTube and Twitch. Dr. Chen remembers the days when people actually brought TV’s over to a friends house connected their Xbox’s and played games together. Rather than turn to YouTube or Twitch or some online forum to learn more about a game, you would go and buy a magazine for that.
The Dr. Gamer column began as an experiment. “It started out as, let’s just try this out for a little bit, and then it just stuck,” Dr. Chen says. “It lasted much longer than I expected.”
Gamers would write in their health-related questions. The editors would select one, and Dr. Chen would answer it. Most were from teenage guys, the largest demographic of gamers. Most questions dealt with overuse injuries.
“Almost all the questions are the same kind of thing I deal with daily in my primary care practice,” Dr. Chen says. “You do too much of something, it’s probably not good for you.”
But writing for a video game magazine made his answer a little more complicated. “You didn’t want to just say: Don’t play video games so much. But that’s the cause of a lot of the health-related problems in gaming. Overuse injuries, tendinitis, that sort of thing. At the end of the day, your magazine is all about video games and you have to support that. But at the same time, it was a chance to put a little bit of evidence and science into some of this stuff.”
But as an avid gamer, Dr. Chen certainly doesn’t believe gaming is bad for you. “If you can’t figure out how to move and shoot at the same time, coordinating your thumbs and your eye, you’re going to be behind, whether you’re one day trying to do a colonoscopy or just playing with your friends.”
At the height of his advice columnist fame, after giving a talk at a medical conference, he was approached by a couple of young doctors. He figured they had a question about his talk.
“They said, ‘Are you Dr. Gamer?’ Then asked if they could take my picture,” Dr. Chen remembers. “I was like, ‘Yeah.’ It was a total fanboy experience. They weren’t there for my medical talk. They just wanted to meet Dr. Gamer. That was the height of fame. In fact, one of the physicians, Dr. Rob Post, has turned out to be a great colleague. He practices in New Jersey. We’re on a committee together. He’s an avid gamer physician, now with kids, and now managing their screen time.”
When the editors decided to end the Dr. Gamer column and Dr. Chen had to hang up his alter ego he understood. Sales of gaming magazines were down, everything was moving online, and there weren’t that many new types of questions left to answer.
“After a while the themes boiled down to when I play video games for ten hours straight I feel X, Y, Z. I feel bad. If you do anything for that long, without breaks, bad things will happen to you. So we’d sort of had our run.”
So does Dr. Chen still game like he used to? “I don’t play every day. That’s one of the things that changes when you have a real job. But I like keeping up. I’m a first-person shooter fan,” Dr. Chen says, pauses, then adds, “But I don’t let my kids play them…yet.”
Dr. Frederick Chen with aspiring gamers
The latest version of Pagliacci's Newsletter is on video games, so we asked Dr. Chen, er, Dr. Gamer to do one more column for Pagliacci, his first in nearly ten years.
ASK DR. GAMER (Pagliacci Version)
Your gaming health questions answered by a real M.D.
1. Has there been research on how video games affect sleep?
Yes, there has, although no large randomized clinical trials have yet to be conducted. But then again why would you need one of those to tell you that video games do in fact impact sleep! One study showed that a single night of gaming affected sleep and attention. Another study showed that for every hour of gaming, time to sleep was delayed by seven minutes and awakening time delayed by 14 minutes. Hopefully, we can avoid spending tax dollars on research that will only give us answers that parents already know!
2. How legitimate is the phenomenon of video game addiction?
A quick scan of the internet reveals that one can be addicted to pretty much anything these days. The medical definition of addiction is a chronic disease characterized by the compulsive use of rewarding stimuli despite harmful consequences. These stimuli can be drugs, alcohol, or, unfortunately, Xbox. The key part of the definition is ‘harmful consequences.’ If you are gaming so much you lose your job, or your grades suffer, then that is a legitimate problem.
3. Do video games affect heart health? My heart feels like it's about to explode sometimes when things get intense. Could this kind of stress be good for the body?
Your heart responds to excitement, tension and fear by beating faster and harder. That is a normal ‘stress’ response. Unfortunately, if your heart isn’t healthy to start with, a stress reaction can cause a heart attack. Intermittent stress from video games doesn’t really help your heart health. What does help is healthy eating, and getting regular exercise.
4. Are there any ways that gaming is good for you?
Studies have shown that gaming can help with hand-eye coordination and reflexes. Some games help educate or even can distract attention from painful medical procedures. Remember gaming is primarily entertainment and there are good benefits to taking a break from work or school.
5. Dear Dr. Gamer, how should I respond to my dad who constantly berates me about the amount of time I spend playing Xbox?
Repeat after me: Thank you Dad for all that you have done for me. You are right and I’ll do anything you ask and I will love you forever.
6. Dear Dr. Gamer, what facial muscle exercises can I do to make it look like I haven’t been staring at a screen for ten hours a day?
Relax your forehead, cheeks, and jaw. Lie down in a quiet dark space. Then, close your eyes for about eight hours.
Disclaimer: These answers are informational only. Dr. Gamer should not replace or preclude you from visiting your personal physician. Serious gaming-related medical issues, like all medical issues, should be referred to your physician.