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Virtual reality helps blast away stress

LEE SUCKLING
Last updated 05:00 04/12/2012
Virtual Reality
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HAND TO HAND: Virtual reality video games are used for stress relief by some US armed forces.

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For years, the US military has used video games to prevent and treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Three video game companies have been developing games for the US Army, specifically for soldiers' use. The games (for soldiers' smartphones) will help diagnose PTSD while still in the field.

This year in Canada, too, forces used "virtual reality (VR) therapy" in a pilot project to treat the condition in its Afghanistan veterans. Reportedly, 17 per cent of returning Canadian military personnel experience PTSD. In New Zealand, the Defence Force also uses video games for post-deployment stress relief, though not at the level of our North American allies.

In a bid to combat the aftermath of a few very stressful weeks, I took a leaf from military books. The task was simple: spend two hours a day for a week in virtual reality, then assess my stress levels.

When used in the military, VR therapy puts soldiers in the specific computer-generated war zone that left him or her traumatised. "VR allows multi-sensory and context-relevant cues that evoke the trauma without exclusively relying on the patient to actively remember and imagine actual experiences," ScienceDaily reported of a 2011 research paper on video games for stress relief by the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies.

Since 2005, several studies have been released discussing the benefits of casual gaming for stress relief. Some findings revealed the playing of video games decreased the levels of cortisol - the stress-producing hormone.

Gaming works to relax people in several ways, I discovered. Initially, it's the simplicity of leaving one's own life behind and taking on another character: my testing saw me become James Bond in 007 Legends. When navigating foreign lands, pulling guns on bad guys and tactically solving navigation puzzles, I was completely unable to think about the regular stresses that plague daily life. They'd jump back to mind occasionally, though as soon as I entered a battle my brain became entirely occupied, leaving no room for worry.

There's a brief, but real, sense of achievement in gaming, which directly translates to mood improvement. In defeating villains and passing to higher levels one feels a series of "wins"; integral in keeping stress at bay in normal life. The shooting of guns is extremely cathartic, similarly. I was dealing with danger, yet I was safely at home and none of it was real.

The lack of any ramifications or rules is key in tackling stress via video games. In real life, we're constantly subject to processes, administration and constraints of moral, intellectual and physical competency. But in the virtual world, one is free to be ruthless without consequence. Even death doesn't elicit fear - all it takes is a reload to be back to perfect health.

After one week of gameplay, I felt more relaxed.

One test in the Institute for Creative Technologies study found 80 per cent of those who undertook video game therapy showed "clinically meaningful" reductions of post-traumatic stress and anxiety. It's just short-term stress relief - video games do little to address the issues that underlie stress - but sometimes that's all you need.

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- The Press

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