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Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Computer games can treat phobias


Popular computer games like Half-Life and Unreal Tournament could provide a cheap and effective treatment for people with debilitating phobias, according to Canadian computer scientists.

Specially made virtual reality (VR) equipment is already used to treat certain types of phobia. Exposing patients to the source of their pathological fear within this controlled and safe environment can be an effective therapy.

But Patrice Renaud and colleagues at the University of Quebec in Canada took the simpler approach of customising existing games to create VR worlds for a range of phobias. Tests with phobic patients showed that the games stimulated a response that could be used to perform controlled treatment.

The researchers suggest that computer games might, therefore, be a cheap and easy-to-use form of VR treatment. The whole cost of the software and hardware comes to a few hundred dollars rather than many thousands, they say. The games also provide highly realistic graphics and can be easily adapted to an individual patient's particular fears.

Exposure therapy

"The effectiveness of the inexpensive hardware and software used in this study shows that VR technology is sufficiently advanced for VR exposure therapy to move into the clinical mainstream," they write in a paper published in the October edition of the journal CyberPsychology and Behaviour.

Games often have software tools that players can use to build new levels or custom tournaments. The researchers used these to construct their phobia-fighting virtual environments. Off-the-shelf head-mounted displays and head-tracking sensors were used to create a more immersive experience for each patient.

Within Half-Life, scenes containing various different types of spider were built to treat people with arachnophobia. Unreal Tournament was used to make environments for those with a fear of heights or confined spaces.

"Treating claustrophobia this way is most interesting," says Anthony Speed, a researcher specialising virtual reality phobia therapies at University College London. He says others have shown that it is relatively simple to treat a fear of heights and spiders using a VR approach, but more costly and complex walk-in virtual reality equipment is normally needed to treat a fear of confined spaces.

"The main thing is that graphics chips have become so powerful that anyone can make these virtual worlds," Speed told New Scientist.


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