War is full of unthinkable turmoil. We all hope and pray that our troops come home safe when they head off to war. Unfortunately, even the ones who are lucky to escape with their lives are oftentimes plagued with the images and memories of the battlefield. While there are many methods of treatment for the symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), video game technology is becoming a popular tool for treatment of the disorder.
What is PTSD?
According to the National Institute of Mental Heath, PTSD is “an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.” These events include violent assaults, military service in a war zone, and natural disasters.
How can Video Game Technology be Used for the Treatment of PTSD?
PTSD treatment using video game technology is a fairly new concept. The first experiment began in 1997 which was aimed at helping Vietnam veterans cope with their 20 year bout with the disorder. The treatment seemed to be a success with a 34-45% decrease in symptoms over a 6-month period.
Today, the greatest number of PTSD cases come from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. While there are several methods that utilize video games for PTSD treatment. The most common are virtual reality exposure therapy and cognitive competition.
Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET) features a headset that delivers visual and audible stimuli to the patient. The program, based on the Xbox hit Full Spectrum Warrior is designed to allow soldiers to relive their experiences under professional supervision. The unique aspect of this approach is the ability to customize the patient’s experience to match the traumatic event that they encountered in real life. The doctor or trained professional overseeing the treatment has full control over the environment including time of day, weather, and violence sequences. According to the study, conducted by the University of Southern California, VRET allows for the treatment of patients who are “unwilling or unable to effectively visualize the traumatic event”. This helps to eliminate a patients ability to purposely avoid “cues and reminders of the trauma.”
The other method of treatment is cognitive competition. According to a study at Oxford University, PTSD symptoms and flashback re-occurrence can be decreased by forcing the brain’s memory storing capabilities to compete for resources. Research shows that’s soldiers who play the classic, Tetris, for 10 minutes following a traumatic event showed significant improvements in PTSD symptoms. Research findings show that Tetris game play helps “distract” the brain’s memory functions reducing the number of painful memories that are stored.
Experiments with Other Sensory Stimulation for PTSD Treatment
Researchers have also begun expanding video reality exposure therapy by adding extra features to stimulate the patient’s other senses. Some headsets now offer olfactory stimuli that allows the patient to smell things such as smoke. Vibrations simulate the rumble from nearby explosions or bullets whizzing by.
The Dangers of Video Game Therapy Without Professional Supervision
While video game therapy has shown positive results for PTSD sufferers, there are some dangers if the treatment is not administered correctly. It is highly recommended that patients only attempt to treat their symptoms using video games under professional supervision. According to Dr. Craig Anderson, video games with violent content can create an enhanced sense of aggravation, aggression, and can lead to violence. If not utilized in a safe, observed environment, video games, especially those with violent content, can enhance the symptoms of PTSD and cause a greater number of flashbacks.
National Institute of Mental Health,”Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)”, NIMH.gov
University of Southern California, “Iraq Exposure Therapy Application for PTSD”, USC Clinical Results Report
United Press International, “Video Game may Reduce PTSD”, UPI.com
Craig Anderson, “Violent Video Games: Myths, Facts, and Unanswered Questions”, APA.org