Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Virtual Therapy

Nearly 20 percent of service members home from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or major depression. That's 300,000 people, and only a bit more than half of them have sought help, according to the April 17 RAND Corporation study that unearthed the stats. Among the possible treatments is a modified video game born of an early Army effort to use such games and their virtual environments for training.

The novel PTSD therapy, called Virtual Iraq, is one of several receiving Defense funding. They've been covered by the media for some time, but now Virtual Iraq is the subject of the best in narrative journalism, a New Yorker story. When the best magazine in America devotes six pages to a subject, you know it has arrived, so the transformation of online video games to real life is now official.

Thing is, Virtual Iraq has it all over most games because it's more than 3D. It includes realistic sounds, smells and even the bone-shaking feel of real combat and real Iraq. Unless you're sitting in one of those gaming chairs with a haptic controller, you'll never truly "feel" the game. The closest most of us come is the buzzing and movement of the Wii controller. And even that can transport a player right into the tennis match or the sword fight, so imagine the reality of Virtual Iraq.

"When it’s only visual, it’s not really real—it’s just a video game—but when the ground starts vibrating and you smell smoke and hear the AK-47 firing, it becomes very real. I’d be shaking. When it was over, I’d go home and cry,” a soldier told New Yorker author Sue Halpern.

Albert Rizzo, a University of Southern California clinical psychologist, invented Virtual Iraq. As these things go in the small, hothouse environment of gaming platforms and virtual worlds, Rizzo was affiliated with USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, created by the Army in 1999 to mix technologists versed in artificial intelligence, immersion and graphics with hotshots from gaming and Hollywood. He already was looking at virtual reality as a way of dealing with attention deficits in kids and memory loss in seniors when we invaded Iraq. He foresaw a long war and lots of traumatic stress. Around the same time, he came across Full Spectrum Warrior, a game created as an Army trainer by the institute. The rest was history. Or at least Halpern's story.

And in true virtual journalism fashion, her story is accompanied online by a video she narrates. It allows readers to become viewers and to experience, at least in part, a virtual world as therapeutic setting. Even without the head-mounted display and motion board, you can begin to see how wandering the virtual streets could take a soldier back. As the therapist adds remembered events, such as exploding cars and sniper fire, the "game" could easily turn to nightmare.

Photo Credit: Gamesetwatch

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