NEW YORK -- For soldiers struggling with memories of their combat time in Iraq, psychologist Skip Rizzo has concocted an unusual prescription: a video game.
Since last year, Rizzo has been developing a program that reconfigures the Xbox game "Full Spectrum Warrior" into a tool to help soldiers who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. He hopes that game technology can provide a window through which painful memories of combat can be viewed head-on -- but from the safety of the virtual world.
"This technology is so new," said Rizzo, who works as a research scientist at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies. "I think we're at the beginning of the cutting edge in understanding how this could have an impact on human behavior for a good purpose: healing people."
Rizzo's system went into clinical use this summer in Atlanta; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Camp Pendleton in Southern California. It uses video game graphics and a virtual-reality headset attached to a military helmet to immerse users in a virtual Iraq. A therapist can control what's happening in the simulation, transforming a peaceful desert road into terrain buzzed by helicopters and lined with Iraqi people and wrecked vehicles. Patients use game controllers to walk or drive, blind to the world outside their headgear.
That was the setup Rizzo recently demonstrated for MTV News. He orchestrated a simulation that started on a desolate desert road, the "player" situated inside a Humvee.
"We can give the Humvee a bit of sound," he said, punching some commands into his laptop. An engine rumbled. "We can change the time of day, so we can have a clear day, overcast, dusk. We can do night." The sky cycled its hues. With a few more clicks on his computer, Rizzo switched the simulation's perspective. Suddenly the view projected into the helmet wasn't from inside the Humvee: It was atop the Humvee, in the turret. Rizzo cued the sound of gunfire, bullets whizzing from uncertain directions.
Another scene puts the player in Baghdad, with enemy fighters present and fellow soldiers on patrol.
A more elaborate version of this virtual Iraq project will include a chair that rumbles because of "nearby" explosions as well as an odor emitter that can introduce smells such as gunpowder, Iraqi spices and body odor. The more senses stimulated, the more immersive the experience is expected to be.
"We are able to put [people] back in a virtual environment that looks like something they experienced their trauma in," Rizzo said. "From a psychological perspective it makes sense because this is the treatment that's documented to work best."
Confronting a person suffering from traumatic memories with a visceral re-creation of those very memories might seem counterintuitive. But exposure therapy, as such an approach is called, is actually a prominent method used to treat those suffering anxiety disorders. Rizzo believes that video game technology presents an ideal tool for such a therapy, since a program can be run in a way that allows a therapist some control over the situation being exposed.
"It's not a magic bullet," Rizzo said. "They've got to do the hard work of describing their experiences and what they're feeling and be able to talk about it. It's a supportive environment. That is the therapy session." He estimates that a veteran could need a dozen sessions with the program.
Rizzo's virtual Iraq is new, but his approach is not. A decade ago, a group of scientists and medical professionals, including psychiatrist Barbara Rothbaum, began using a virtual-reality re-creation of Vietnam for veterans of that war. More recently, doctors JoAnn Difede of Cornell's Weill Medical College and Hunter Hoffman of the University of Washington led the development of a virtual reality re-creation of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In Israel, a company called Imprint Interactive Technology has developed a digital scene that portrays a bus-bombing from across a virtual street.
"We started with virtual reality in the '90s," Rothbaum told MTV News. "Computer scientists had the idea that this might be a good way to expose people to what they're scared of. So we started doing that research. With the fear of heights, we got the virtual airplane, and we got virtual audiences for fear of public speaking. With post-traumatic stress disorder, because of the nature of the disorder, people are so avoidant. They don't want anything that reminds them of what happened, so that can make it difficult to treat. With virtual reality, we can expose them to those cues but in a therapeutic manner to make it easier for them."
Rizzo's project was funded by the Office of Naval Research. The game it uses, "Full Spectrum Warrior," was released commercially for Xbox by games publisher THQ but was funded and used, in an alternate version, as a training tool by the Army. It's another example of the military's continued interest in video games, an approach most prominently exemplified by the Army's own video game/ recruitment tool, the PC shooter "America's Army."
Virtual Iraq is designed to help people be less rattled by violent memories. Since it uses video games to accomplish this, however, it may provide evidence for the theory that video games desensitize gamers from the violence they see. That desensitization is what critics of violent video games say leads gamers to commit acts of real violence.
Rothbaum, however, is adamant that therapies like virtual Vietnam and Iraq help, not harm, users. "What we're doing is helping people confront painful memories," she said. "We're matching the virtual reality to what they're describing. We've been treating people for the fear of heights for years, and they're not jumping off buildings. We don't want to expose people to any realistic threat whether it's in virtual reality or in reality. We just want to help them deal with what happened to them in the past."
What happens when four of the world's top game designers meet for their first-ever group interview? Check out "MTV News Presents: The Gods of Gaming," airing Saturday at 6:30 p.m. ET/PT on MTV2.