National Edition

Video games battle back: How technology fights trauma

Published: Friday, June 27 2014 4:20 a.m. MDT

Updated: Monday, July 7 2014 11:25 a.m. MDT

Prof. Albert "Skip" Rizzo explains how virtual reality helps soldiers work through traumatic memories.

Eric Betts, KSL

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series examining the role of technology in revolutionizing treatment for mental health and disease. Read the second part here.

The ground shakes as an explosion drowns out the musical call to morning prayer in an Afghan village. The streets empty and hurried voices argue in Arabic.

“OK,” professor Albert “Skip” Rizzo’s voice cuts in. “I’m going to make all hell break loose.”

Helicopters soar through smoke billowing from the remains of a car-turned-IED. Bodies lie in the road in torn, mangled heaps. But Rizzo isn't in Afghanistan — he's sitting in the demonstration room of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies in Los Angeles. A black, open room segmented into different program demo areas, it more closely resembles a stage than a lab.

As a director at ICT, it’s been Rizzo’s job for the past nine years to re-create scenes from the battlefields of the Middle East in a virtual landscape. It’s one example of how some innovators are taking video game technology and using it in new ways — in this case, to help veterans make sense of traumatic experiences.

The potential to help people, Rizzo knows, is limitless. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, seven out of every 100 people will have PTSD at some point in their lives. About 5.2 million people will have PTSD during a given year, but that’s “only a small portion” of people who will experience trauma, the department states.

“War sucks,” Rizzo said. “But it drives innovation. The good legacy of this war will be the impact it’s had on technology development and the ethical responsibility to maximize it.”

Authentic details

It’s less the visual surroundings that make the virtual experience realistic than it is the sounds, Rizzo says, which one team member spent a week recording in Iraq to pull scenes together: Arabic conversations. Goats and chickens milling in courtyards. The growl of armored vehicles. A baby's cry.

“That ‘waaaaa’ in the distance just pulls at the heartstrings,” Rizzo said. “Sound is a big driver of emotion. These visuals set the stage, but the sound really does it.”

The next scene is a picturesque afternoon in rural Afghanistan. Snow-capped mountains tower in the distance and a tree offers dappled shade from the exposed hillside. Coming over the rise, a mass grave yawns underfoot, its depths piled high with hooded bodies.

This scenario was built specifically from patient memory, Rizzo said.

Most soldiers who have served in the war on terror don’t want to go back — but in order to treat and overcome post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), many of them will have to, at least in their own minds. As part of ICT's program, soldiers put on a headset that sits over the ears and eyes and stand on a platform that emits the feeling of movement or explosions. They are transported to a virtual Middle East, moving with the help of a game controller. Through this kind of virtual reality and video game technology, ICT’s program helps soldiers deal with memories that could alter, if not destroy, their lives back home.

No one understands that better than Jonathan Warren. Now 32, Warren served in Iraq in 2006 when he and his best friend were riding in a truck that was hit by an IED. Both were doused with diesel fuel, and Warren woke up burning, bloody and leaking spinal fluid from his ears.

“I heard screaming and realized it was me,” Warren said. “That scared me.”

Warren had to watch his friend burn as he struggled to find a medic.

“All I could do was tell him to drop and roll,” Warren said.

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