I ran across an article today that talked about a company seeking approval from the Food & Drug Administration for a video game to treat Schizophrenia. The game they’re attempting to develop will focus on improving patients’ memory & attention, thereby making them better able to function outside of a hospital (the game is not intended to treat the hallucinations or delusions that often accompany this disorder, which typically require medication). The company, Brain Plasticity Inc., plan to begin their study next year by testing how 150 patients respond to their variety of mental exercises. Clearly people believe this project to show promise, because not only did the company receive $3 million from the FDA, but a further $2 million from the Department of Defense for research on using the same technology to help war veterans with brain trauma.
It’s a very interesting idea to have people play video games to improve cognitive skills. But if you stop & think about it, it’s not that strange. Games such as Brain Age claimed to train your brain & improve your thinking abilities by playing its mini-games a few times a day. And a lot of games feature sequences that challenge your reaction times. What about quick-time events? Or puzzles games, which challenge you to think logically? If doing crossword puzzles can help stave off Alzheimer’s, why can’t Ilomilo do the same?
The article also mentioned the success of a previous video game therapy known as “Virtual Iraq.” Virtual Iraq is a virtual reality program developed by Dr. Albert Rizzo, Associate Director for Medical Virtual Reality at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. It’s goal is to help Iraq veterans overcome Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by immersing them in a virtual simulation of the events that happened to them.
For those unfamiliar with the condition, PTSD is an anxiety disorder caused by an extremely traumatic incident, such as war, that a person can continue to relive at any time. Often these intense flashbacks are triggered by seemingly harmless things, such as a sound or smell that reminds them of the incident. These flashbacks are so intense that the person believes they are actually reliving that moment, creating extreme distress & interfering with the quality of their lives.
Typically, PTSD is treated with Exposure Therapy. As the name implies, it works by continually exposing a client to a stressful object or situation until they no longer react to it. By confronting their fear in a safe environment, the goal is for the client to become desensitized to it.
Virtual Iraq follows the same idea. Created from a modded version of Full Spectrum Warrior, clients are placed in a special room to give a completely immersive experience. VR goggles cover their eyes, headphones provide the sound, they often carry a rifle (prop of course) as most active military personnel do, & the room is filled with subwoofers to provide vibrations. They can even pump certain smells into the room. Everything is based around making the experience as real as possible. But the most effective aspect is that the game allows for the scenario to match that of the events that caused the PTSD in the first place. It’s all about tailoring. And all the while the therapist is engaging in talk therapy with the client, having them express what they see & feel. Without this talking aspect, it’s unlikely the project would be more than just an expensive gimmick. Talking helps the client come to terms with what happened. Dr. Rizzo also points out that there is no combat involved. The gun clients are given is to make the experience as authentic as possible. It’s important that the session isn’t about trying to prevent the event, but accept it.
Started in 2004, Virtual Iraq has seen tremendous success with clients. Of those that complete the program, 80% of clients see a complete elimination of their symptoms in six weeks. Currently they’re working on a way to adapt the program for Afghanistan veterans.
As a counselor in training, this news excites me very much. It opens up so many possibilities. Obviously this approach won’t work with every disorder or situation. I’m pretty sure it would be more than a little unethical to subject a rape victim to reliving their assault so vividly. And none of this will replace regular therapy. But psychologists should use all tools at their disposal to help their clients. And for a medium that brags about being both immersive & interactive, video games seem like the perfect source for these unique answers. It may even improve the success rate of therapy. I mean, how many of us would love to say, “My doctor ordered me to play video games”? Taking pills is no fun, but gaming is.
So who knows, maybe some time in the future we’ll see people with mild mental retardation playing the Sims to learn basic living skills. Or stroke victims playing Trauma Center to improve lost motor skills. As game technology continues to grow, so do the possibilities.