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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… Read more

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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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