Games in physical & mental rehabilitation
Some of the therapies that help in treating trauma and lessening its symptoms are Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Exposure Therapy (ET) and Eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR). EMDR, or similar type therapies, are the most prominent that come to mind when considering gaming in a mental rehabilitation regime. Exercises that include games like Tetris offer a way in focusing the mind on a task, that requires high mental acuity and quick perception to resolve. While being given the additional task of trying to recall a traumatic when playing something like Tetris, the resulting effect is very similar to EMDR treatments.
Mental acuity is not the only aspect that can benefit from gaming, patients who have experienced severe physical trauma have used the aid of gaming to improve their physical acuity. Those going through physiotherapy to regain the control of hands and fingers have stated that while playing a game on a controller they are at once exercising the right body parts and not thinking about the difficulty of that action.
As with the mental rehabilitation example, the effect of the game is that the individual is no longer thinking about the symptom caused by the trauma, but rather is focused on the challenge external to them. Extending that finger to do that special move so that you can get further in the game is, by comparison, less taxing than consciously focusing on trying to clip clothes pegs with the affected finger set.
What this essentially is a sense of competition to overcome a challenge. And as we’ve mentioned before, doing this in a collective sense increase the positive benefits. Creating bonds with other sufferers and competing actually compounds the positive outcomes of engaging in a gaming activity.
What the game, either on a computer or on a VR headset, allows the individual to do is create an external association, as I noted earlier, with a character. Now the amazing thing about this is that psychologically this empathic association enables those suffering from debilitating traumatic symptoms to act and interact completely and fully with other characters, real or not. These actions are governed in a world of rules and limitations, but ones they have understood, can control to an extent and achieve in. And this experience of empowerment, when transferred back onto the individual is what can hopefully allow them to rehabilitate in the world that they were struggling in because the rules no longer worked for them due to the trauma they had experienced.
What games and VR allow is for individuals with trauma, anxiety, phobia’s or other mental conditions to fully immerse themselves and practice social interactions or daily activities in a safe environment, without fear of an attack, mental or otherwise, occurring to them.
Games & VR Exposure therapy
One of the main subsets of CBT is Exposure therapy when dealing with traumatic experiences, especially with PTSD. Virtual Reality is the front-runner for this treatment, it has actually been the front-runner for the better part of 20 years. But now it is becoming accessible to a far larger pool of people. Exposure therapy is always conducted in a safe environment, but until VR, it relied heavily on the individual’s imagination and memory. With VR, the events can be recreated ‘fully’ to fully immerse the person in a first-person view of the environment, in effect completely exposing them to the event where the trauma occurred.
For PTSD sufferers, this often resembles what the majority of us know as first-person shooters, for obvious reasons. The sensory experience however for those with PTSD is much more pronounced though when immersed in virtual reality. “Skip” Rizzo, a researcher at the University of Southern California, has developed a VR experience that not only recreates the sights and sounds of theaters of war in Iraq and Afghanistan but also incorporates a machine that releases the correct smell when the visual coincides. This level of immersion is unbelievable when considering exposure therapy. Three senses that are so intrinsically associated with memory are all activated at once. And many individuals in the military who have undergone this therapy have had very positive outcomes thanks to it.
What this type of VR experience highlights yet again is that these can be tailored to the individual. You may not be a soldier who is suffering from PTSD caused by combat action, but someone who may have PTSD due to abuse or an accident. These VR worlds can be customized to you and your unique traumatic cues, to aid you in your therapy, in your treatment.
Within the world of the military though, as this is an area where so many individuals who suffer from PTSD go untreated, there is the concept of whether VR could be used as a preventative measure. We will have to see whether this is a possibility, or whether it enters the realm of desensitization.