The idea of virtual reality often is associated with acne-faced tweens and teens tackling video games. But it also is used for more serious purposes, like treating phobias and drug abuse.
Some believe a breakthrough virtual reality game may help addicts better control their cravings, which is a huge obstacle for the millions battling addiction and trying to recover.
The game, which is the brainchild of Duke University professor Zach Rosenthal, aims to offer something traditional therapy cannot by allowing a therapist to guide a patient through a virtual world that presents various temptations. It actually brings cravings present in the outside world into the therapy session.
"What we're trying to do is take people into a virtual crack-related neighborhood or crack-related setting and have them experience cravings, just like they would in the real world," Rosenthal said.
Rosenthal said cravings are mental and a learned behavior. So, the theory behind the game is just as a person learns to crave, he or she can learn not to crave.
When temptation arises in certain situations, the patient rates his or her own craving level. But the magic moment comes when a high craving subsides, which it does, because the patient won't be taking drugs in the virtual world.
The therapist tries to tie that moment, when a craving subsides, to a trigger, like a tone. So the addict eventually learns to associate the sound with the sensation of decreased craving.
The ultimate goal is to stop a craving before it begins, even if an addict walks into a tempting situation in the real world.
For example, if an addict ends up in a tempting situation, he or she can take out the phone donated by the program, dial a number and hear that tone. The addict remembers the sound learned in the therapy session, and the craving should subside.
While some critics may say feeling cravings in a video game is not akin to having them in reality, at least one addict said the therapy worked for him.
The 52-year-old recovering drug addict, who asked that his identity not be revealed, said he was a frequent patient of drug treatment programs for years before trying virtual reality therapy.
"The program has done wonders for me," he said. "Although I have fallen since I came out of the program, I am clean and have been clean for a good while."
Currently the program revolves around crack cocaine, but Rosenthal said the possibilities are limitless.
"This isn't about cocaine, and this isn't really about substance use," He said. "This is about creating new learning and extending that learning to the real world."
For more information, go to www.dukescience.org.