Video games are often used as escapes from reality, to play at our own leisure and forget about our daily troubles. But what if they could be used as a tool to combat our real-life problems, instead of as a distraction from them? A clinic in Los Angeles is attempting to do just that, as they develop virtual reality programs to help those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is triggered by shocking and disturbing experiences that cause anxiety, emotional numbness, depression, and difficulty concentrating for those who suffer from it. Its most common forms of treatment are talk and exposure therapy. The University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) has developed a now "evidence-based" exposure therapy that engages the use of virtual reality, specifically for war veterans with PTSD. Where traditional exposure therapy involves guiding patients through traumatic memories by retelling the initial traumatic experience, ICT's Virtual Iraq/Afghanistan therapy uses a VR head mounted display, directional 3D audio, vibrations and even scents to simulate the combat experiences of war veterans, instead of relying on pure imagination.

Putting Virtual Reality Treatment to the Test

A recent study, published by the medical journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, observed the effectiveness of virtual reality-based treatment, like the one developed by ICT. The research studied 28 individuals with PTSD, simulating their original traumatic experiences with computer technology and graphics, while monitoring their physiological stress response. They were then trained on how to handle stress responses on their own with coping skills like breathing and automatic thought control. "[The training] keeps them from becoming overwhelmed by the emotion," says Dr. Brenda K. Wiederhold, author of the study, which found that the use of virtual reality was associated with significant reductions in PTSD symptoms.

Are Video Games Really Enough to Treat PTSD?

While evidence that supports virtual reality-based treatment exists, this new strategy isn't free of criticism. There is reasonable concern that the use of computer simulated experiences on PTSD patients can be intrusive and result in worsened symptoms. There are also worries that virtual reality treatment doesn't leave room for talking through the issue, which can oversimplify and not efficiently dissect the trauma.

For some military veterans who are accustomed to "toughening up" and remaining silent about mental and emotional distress, however, virtual reality might be a more welcomed treatment than typical therapy sessions. ICT's website notes that "young military personnel, having grown up with digital gaming technology, may actually be more attracted to and comfortable with a VR treatment approach as an alternative to traditional 'talk therapy"—a hopeful insight that makes sense in the current, and increasingly digital, culture.

Date of original publication:
Updated on: July 12, 2016