The Power of Gaming: Virtual Reality Simulation & PTSD

// Posted by on 03/31/2014 (10:39 AM)

Throughout our class discussions this semester, we have been grappling with the question as to how digital technologies change the way we live. One of the most interesting evaluations that I have encountered thus far is presented in Rushkoff’s book, “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.” In chapter 1, Rushkoff discusses how games invite our ongoing participation and therefore allow us to avert present shock altogether, as we, the players, become the story and can act it out in real time. The power of gaming is seen in the fact that virtual reality has now become a useful new therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, especially with war veterans. While Rushkoff was initially inclined to write off the treatment as a way that technology is breaking the human contact between therapists and their patients, he quickly changed his viewpoint after he participated in psychologist Skip’s virtual reality simulation. Rushkoff said the simulation made him feel like something was resolved about the incident, and, the fact that that Skip was experiencing the simulation with him the whole time was comforting. In this way, technology actually united Rushkoff and Skip.

While we as a class have been quick to find faults in all technology—as entities that separate us from our “true” selves, from our relationships, from face-to-face conversations, etc.—I think it is refreshing to realize that technologies can enhance our relations with ourselves and others as well.

As we discussed in class, nowadays our online lives are no longer virtual, but are considered part of our reality. The virtual reality simulation, therefore, is very much real for the vets suffering PTSD—the smells, sounds, sights, etc. in the simulation incur similar reactions that occurred in the original incident. The simulations can help treat PTSD because the re-creation allows the patient to relive the incident but from the safety and distance of a computer simulation without facing any real danger. While it might seem counterintuitive to re-create the past in order to live in the present, it appears to be an effective tool for people to isolate the old memories and reactions that are repressing their present lives.

This YouTube video shows the process that occurs in a virtual-reality-based treatment. In addition to having the patient experience a virtual reality simulation, Skip also has him talk to a virtual therapist. Interestingly, the patient was at ease talking to the therapist and even admitted that it was comforting because he knew the virtual therapist wouldn’t judge him. I was not surprised he felt that way, but am struggling with understanding if a virtual therapist can fully replace a real human. This concept of technology replacing humans is one that Sherry Turkle describes as “haunting” in her article “The Flight from Conversation.” We humans are starting to doubt our abilities to connect and comfort others and instead pass off those duties to technology, like a baby seal robot: “We expect more from technology and less from one another and seem increasingly drawn to technologies that provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of relationship” While perhaps there are benefits to a virtual therapist, I would find it frustrating to “talk” to someone who had no experience in human life and who could not relate to my feelings. The virtual-reality simulation, however, seems to be able to balance the relation between technology and human contact by using technology to help the therapist connect with the patient through re-creation. What do you think?

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Rachel said...

While I can understand finding it daunting or dehumanizing to talk to a virtual therapist, I can also understand how a patient might find it comforting.

Especially for men, who are often pressured to feel like they can’t talk about how they’re feeling, the idea of getting feedback from someone (or something) they know won’t judge them might give them an outlet they previously didn’t have.

Plus, for a lot of patients with any kind of mental illness, PTSD in particular, a fear of being judged or being seen as weak often stops them from seeking help, which can lead to suicide. I think, while a lot of patients may not find it comforting, it’s certainly an interesting and innovative treatment option for some other patients who might not otherwise be receptive to therapy.

// 03/31/2014 at 1:32 pm

Deirdre said...

This was a really interesting post. I had never heard of these virtual PTSD treatments until reading Rushkoff but they seem to be really effective. I agree with you that our class discussions have revolved around the ways in which the progression of technology and the ways it is encroaching on our lives makes us wary for the future. Videos and topics like this, though, make it clear that in a lot of ways technology is helping us, and in this case perhaps even saving peoples’ lives and mental health.
VR therapy seems like it has been successful, and in a lot of ways this doesn’t surprise me. He claims that the therapist helps him be sure that he’s not talking to someone who will judge him or “spill his secrets.” Now that I consider this point of view, I wonder why more people haven’t turned to virtual therapists as technology has developed.
About a year ago, Rushkoff was interviewed by Wired, and he talked even more about a different phenomenon involving PTSD and drones and the relationship to digiphrenia. Kind of unrelated to your post, but it’s a noteworthy interview/article.


// 03/31/2014 at 11:48 pm

Sarah said...

While this form of therapy may be questionable to some, it has clearly had an effect on others. The whole idea of machines vs. humans and creating this new form of interaction between machines and humans is very prominent today. Nobody wants to lose human to human empathy and interactions however there comes a point when people need to overcome this fear.

I believe since this form of therapy does help so many, why create a problem with it? This is very linked to our past discussions revolved around Turkle and her aversion to the robot babies. While these robots may be replacing some human interaction I think they are doing more good than harm. This virtual reality is even less daunting because it recreates something that we can’t do in real life to help these patients with PTSD cope.

// 04/01/2014 at 12:21 pm

Molly said...

People deal with trauma in many different ways, and although it may seem strange and a little outlandish, I think virtual simulation for situations such as PTSD, or extreme phobias are psychologically and technologically revolutionary. Being allowed to recreate and relive a traumatic experience in the safety of a doctor’s office is cutting edge. Further, the “virtual shrink” is first socialized and created by real, human therapists working behind the screen to ultimately teach is how to gauge body language, expressions, etc. and react accordingly. I personally think for extreme scenarios such as PTSD victims, virtual simulation could be very helpful, however I do not think virtual therapists should ever replace human therapists as a whole. Virtual therapy could be a helpful COMPONENT of therapy in some situations, but I ultimately think face to face human conversation and physical contact can’t be replaced.

// 04/01/2014 at 12:35 pm