Gaming and therapy

There's a must-read article in this week's New Yorker about a new form of therapy designed to treat the estimated 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are returning to the US with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The therapy is based on virtual reality - using a specially-modified version of the game Full Spectrum Warrior, which was partly designed by the Pentagon as a training programme, though civilians can also buy it and play it on their PCs or consoles.

The special therapeutic version, called Virtual Iraq, uses a head-set that fully immerses the player in the environment. Psychologists then use it to re-expose the patient to the incident that caused their trauma, the incident which is lodging in their memory like shrapnel, and not letting them get on with their life.

The programme can be modified to quite detailed specifications - the psychologist can take the patient to a number of different environments, such as walking through a market, or driving along a road in a Humvee, and can introduce elements such as helicopters flying over head, people shouting in Arabic, even 'the smell of burnt hair'.

That way, they can gradually up the reality intensity, and get the patient to re-experience it over and over, until eventually they can go through the experience without feeling terror, and the memory can gradually lose its fangs and be processed.

The inventor of Virtual Iraq, is a cognitive therapist called Albert Rizzo. He took a job as a cognitive-rehabilitation therapist at a hospital in Costa Mesa, working with people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries. “A lot of young males are in that population,” he said. “The high-risk-takers. The drunk drivers. Gang members—all of that. With that population, it was sometimes hard to motivate them to do the standard paper-and-pencil drill and practice routines. Then, in the early nineteen-nineties, Game Boys came on the scene, and it seemed to me that all my male clients, at every break, at every meal, had become Tetris warlords. It showed me that they were motivated to do game tasks, and that the more they did them the better they got, and it hit me that there could be a link between cognitive rehabilitation and virtual reality.”

Rizzo says: "“The last one hundred years, we’ve studied psychology in the real world. In the next hundred, we’re going to study it in the virtual world.”

The article made me think of the growing use of gaming in the well-being movement. The Nintendo Wii console, which allows for more physical interaction than other consoles, has started to be used for some forms of physical therapy, or 'Wiihabilitation' as some wags have called it.

Wii just launched a new game, Wii Fit, which analysts think could become the best-selling game of all time. It includes a basic yoga programme, including breathing exercises and yoga postures like the Downward-facing Dog, the Cobra and the Warrior. The programme includes a mat which tells you if you are doing the posture correctly. There is also an exercise called Zazen, where the player must remain motionless while looking at a flame - Zen meditation on a games console!

These moves are just the beginning. Consoles and online gaming are a terrain where many young, socially-alienated people can live out virtual lives which are not being fulfilled in the real world. It would be fantastic if games could be developed that taught these young people the cognitive, physical and emotional skills they need to thrive in real-life.

Imagine, if in a few years governments, psychologists and gaming producers could work together to produce similar games to Virtual Iraq, but for other emotional disorders, such as depression, social anxiety, addiction, or anorexia...

Below is a news story from YouTube about the Virtual Iraq programme: