PTSD: Video Game Treatment

Most people would agree that war-based games Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield, among other violent video games, lack a substantial beneficial or educational component; however, a certain line of research has found esteemed use of such violent, first person shooter games. Based on the standard layout of shooting-based video games that have been around for decades, virtual reality technologies advanced the two-dimensional game into a metaphysical experience of immersive multimedia. Further accelerating from recreational to vocational purposes, the developing field of virtual reality transformed video games into a clinically proven therapy treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the video below, United States Master Sargent Robert Butler expresses gratitude for this innovative therapy treatment that saved his life and marriage.

Virtual reality exposure is one method of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) that has proven to be an effective treatment of PTSD in war veterans. The cognitive factors incorporated in the etiology of PTSD include both thought suppression and dissociation. Suppression of trauma-related thoughts has shown to have a rebound effect that is actually associated with increases in negative affect, anxiety, distress, and diminished perceptions of controllability over thoughts (Shipherd et al., 2005); moreover, PTSD patients tend to have fragmented memories of the traumatic event due to cognitive avoidance coupled with suppression. Dissociation refers to an out-of-body state, in which the individual perceives events and experiences as from a distance. One study explored the effect of memory disturbance of traumatic events on the transformation of those experiences into long-term, lasting memories (Bergouignan et al., 2013). This study found a link between out-of-body experiences and hippocampus-based episodic memory impairment; further, dissociation obstructs the encoding phase of memory formation contributing to the dissociative symptoms experienced by PTSD patients.

The cognitive behavioral approach of virtual reality exposure offers patients the opportunity to artificially confront their suppressed thoughts and memories in a safe and controlled environment. Clinicians are able to emulate the patient’s traumatic experience by manipulating their sense of taste, sight, smell, sound and touch to simulate the physical experience as accurately as possible, but at the patient’s own pace. Through repeated exposure of provoking sensations, patients are eventually able to lower their distress and re-live their memories; this allows their impaired memory regions to process the suppressed information and reconstruct fragmented memories. With even further exposure to their artificially constructed trauma, the veterans learn to cope with their experiences by accepting them as memories of the past.


Works Cited

Bergouignan, L., Nyberg, L., & Ehrsson, H. H. (2014). Out-of-body–induced hippocampal amnesia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(12), 4421-4426.

Shipherd, J. C., & Beck, J. G. (2005). The role of thought suppression in posttraumatic stress disorder. Behavior Therapy, 36(3), 277-287.

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