Far removed from traditional rehab centers exists a virtual world filled with drugs, alcohol and prostitutes — kind of like “The Sims” on crack. Strangely enough, it was created to battle drug addiction.
Duke University professor Dr. Zach Rosenthal has proposed a way to safely test temptation in crack addicts with VR Worlds 2, a digital program that is part of a new drug study in which therapists create virtual worlds to fit each addict’s level of addiction. Different settings include a motel room, a middle-class suburban home and an alleyway. Therapists can also drag and drop the addict’s favorite brand of booze, or add avatars representing prostitutes and fellow drug users — anything that will spark a craving.
During the 12-week treatment, which is coupled with group therapy and one-on-one counseling, the therapist guides an addict through the program of temptation with a joystick and virtual-reality goggles. People, places and things are slowly added until the subject experiences an increased level of craving. Once the addict is exposed to enough drug-related cues, the craving level decreases. At that point, the therapist repeatedly plays a unique tone.
When the addict is in a real-life, high-risk situation, he or she can call a special number on a cell phone provided by the clinic and hear the tone that was played as the craving tapered during treatment, helping to stop the feeling before it starts.
“This is Pavlov’s dogs gone technological,” Rosenthal told MTV News. And Rosenthal’s experiment could prove to be just as effective. Because the project is in the early stages, there are no solid results yet — but patients have rated the virtual world as highly realistic and said that the cell-phone tones are reducing cravings. “When I have a craving and I hear the tone, I think to myself, ’I do not have to do this,’ ” a 52-year-old former crack addict who participated in the study (and wished to remain anonymous) told MTV News. He said he has been clean for nine months.
VR isn’t a new idea in the medical community — doctors have also used it to treat soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder — and critics may argue that bringing addicts into the virtual world will illicit cravings in the real world. Unlike VR Worlds 2, traditional drug treatment teaches users to stay away from people, places and things that lead to temptation — something that Rosenthal says isn’t realistic. “This is a safe and systematic way of teaching people to confront this stuff,” he said. “Crack addicts have lots of associations to things. They can’t avoid bus stations and parks, for example. This is a study designed to make good treatment (e.g. group therapy) better.”
Although Rosenthal doesn’t see this program hitting retail shelves anytime soon, he does hope to develop more virtual worlds aimed at helping adolescents and young adults deal with prescription drug, marijuana and alcohol addictions. “This isn’t about playing a video game,” he said, “this is about giving people a tool to help them through their darkest moments.”