War games used to treat traumatized soldiers

Posted by Emma Woollacott

For many people, there's still a stigma associated with therapy, and soldiers are at least as vulnerable to this as anybody else.

But, according to Albert Rizzo from the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies, playing war games could be a viable alternative for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Rizzo says that virtual reality (VR) can be used effectively to deliver exposure therapy - the number one therapy recommended for PTSD - by immersing returning soldiers in simulations of traumatic environments.

His application consists of a series of virtual scenarios, based on real-life stories from returning soldiers. Just how emotionally intense the experience is can be controlled by the clinician and the patient himself.

And the results so far are encouraging. One test, for example, found that 80 percent of those who completed treatmentshowed clinically meaningful reductions in PTSD, anxiety and depressive symptoms. And anecdotal evidence from patients suggests improvements in their everyday lives for at least three months after treatment.

"The current generation of young military personnel, having grown up with digital gaming technology, may actually be more attracted to and comfortable with participation in virtual reality exposure therapy," says the team.

"The need for treatments to address the mental health needs of our military personnel, alongside the virtual revolution that has taken place, has led to a state of affairs which stands to transform the vision of future clinical practice and research."

The researchers are also looking at other applications for their system, including teaching soldiers coping strategies to prepare them for the types of emotional challenges they are likely to face. It could also be used to identify soldiers who are ready to get back into the field, and those who need further treatment or more time.