For health you can usually read food, shields, stamina, battery life, or anything else the game designer chooses to represent the phrase "this is the extent you can screw up before we'll force you to reload." The further these representations get from actual medical items the less sense they begin to make, and the implications can often be outright disturbing. We're probably better off just not thinking about Link grabbing and consuming the hearts of his enemies for sustenance in Ocarina of Time.
Indeed, videogame medical supplies are so far removed from their real life counterparts that it's possible to substitute them with almost anything. A popular choice as a stand-in is the other great all-healing commodity of games: food. Games treat food and medication as essentially one and the same (though if both are present, food may be relegated to a second class healing item). There's a weird pathological need to consume food in games, even when it would be far more rational to steer well clear. There was always something rewarding about devouring every single piece of food from a fat Baron's parlour in Thief: The Dark Project, and lord knows how many of BioShock's soggy cakes people have picked out of bins and stuffed in their faces.
Seek Medical Attention Right Away
Yet for all their ludicrousness, these cure-all portrayals of medicinal items in games serve a clear and winsome purpose. Game heroes are an unfortunate breed that tends to find itself being shot at, stabbed or, at the very least, jostled sternly around platforms by surreal antagonists. It may seem attractive to some, but most of us don't want to have to play a quicktime mini-game to bandage up Mario's severed artery every time he lands himself in trouble. For all the touted military realism of games like ARMA II, it seems unlikely that many players would want to learn CPR and wound treatment in order to function as part of an effective squad when playing online. Plus, no-one is going to want to be the guy who has to level up his virtual doctorate in treating post-traumatic stress disorder.
Authenticity of action has a mixed history in videogames. Sometimes, realistic asides can provide memorable moments (though this tends to rely on the unexpected, such as being given a stern talking to by your boss in Deus Ex for exploring the women's bathrooms), but other attempts have been less successful. Few will have fond memories of falling to an ignominious death through the rotted floorboards of a peasant's cottage in King's Quest: Quest for the Crown. Realistic though the consequences of improper floorboard care may be, in general we don't want to be reminded of them.
The cliché of gaming meds exists for convenience, as a symbolic shortcut to keep our characters on their feet and engaged in activities that are actually entertaining, like kicking Orcs off cliffs, setting infected humans on fire, or blundering around alternative-future Mojave deserts in a drug-fuelled haze. So let's doff our caps in humble celebration of the continuing legacy of the insta-cure bottle of pain pills.
Forget about regenerating health though, that's plainly absurd.
Peter Parrish is grabbin' pills.