I’d like to start with a moment of silence. If you’re reading this in your room alone, with the lights turned off, feel free to
hold your cheetos-covered hand to your heart. Tom Clancy, best-selling author of many action and military/spy thriller novels, passed away last night at the age of 66. In addition to his many other endeavors, Tom Clancy was instrumental in founding Red Storm, from which he would develop many notable games, like the Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon games. From Ubisoft’s Facebook page:
We are saddened to learn of Tom Clancy’s passing and our condolences go out to his family. Tom Clancy was an extraordinary author with a gift for creating detailed, engrossing fictional stories that captivated audiences around the world.
The teams at Ubisoft, especially at the Red Storm studio, are incredibly grateful to have collaborated with and learned from him, and we are humbled by the opportunity to carry on part of his legacy through our properties that bear his name.
A light has gone out. As such, I think it is fitting to discuss how video games, perhaps the medium in which he was most successful, can help prevent other lights from going out. One of the biggest issues facing our military, besides (but not unrelated to) rampant sexual assault and a failure to try those crimes seriously, is suicide. Rates of military and veteran suicide remain troublingly high, despite significant efforts toward prevention. Many of these suicides are linked to PTSD.
So, what’s to be done about this? We’ve tried a number of solutions, and maybe they’re working, but we need more. What can we do?
How about Tetris? Research suggests that playing Tetris is more therapeutic re: PTSD flashbacks (which are different than simply remembering a traumatic event, in that the subject relives the trauma), than quiz and trivia style games, or no particular activity. As quoted in the above link, Oxford professor Emily Holmes hypothesized “that the visual-spatial demands of Tetris disrupt the formation of the mental imagery involved in flashbacks.”
The military has been moving on research like this for over a year now. Take a look at this: The Army has awarded contracts to Vista Life Sciences, Empirical Technologies, and Aptima, Inc. to develop a video game app that is enjoyable, but also collects data on reaction time, hand-eye coordination, and other markers. Michael Lutz of Vista Life Sciences, looks to develop “a game that accurately charts mental health.” That might go as far as investigating whether a soldier’s performance markers drop significantly from an established baseline after an explosion or the loss of a comrade.
Over at the University of Southern California, researchers are working on a simulation that would, essentially, inoculate soldiers against the horrors of combat. PTSD is commonly treated using what’s called “exposure-based therapy.” This therapy helps the subject to recall the event without being forced to relive it,by bringing the subject into real or imaginary contact with visual and aural stimuli related to the traumatic event. It is often effective, but is also somewhat risky. This research, headed by Dr. Skip Rizzo, would seek to expose soldiers to the sights and sounds that might potentially traumatize them before they have to experience the actual situation. Preliminary work suggests that it may be effective, not only in “inoculating” soldiers, but also in identifying those soldiers who are most likely to develop PTSD.
The technology is quite immersive and
does not simulate only sight and sound, but also vibration and smell. This is (minus the smell) a similar model to many video games, especially with gaming’s current push for hyper-realism in terms of sensory input. You can see firsthand how it might help soldiers to cope with these events, and hear “PTSD Exposure Therapy” explained by none other than Rizzo, here:
With a military that is increasingly using video game technology to address many of its problems, one might be tempted to think that “welp, now that they’ve got Mario, and Pac-Man on the case, it’s taken care of.” Not so fast. Video games can help to fight PTSD, they can alleviate stress, or just make life a little easier, which can make all the difference in the world. You can help. There’s something called Operation Supply Drop (OSD). Their Facebook info page is here, and lists many of the potential benefits of video gaming for soldiers. They’ve raised around $300,000 dollars to send video games and gaming gear to soldiers overseas and to Walter Reed Military Hospital. You can read more about their work over at Kotaku, as well as testimonials by soldiers on how important these things can be in their lives.
OSD will be running their second annual 8-Bit Salute to Veterans, which is an all-day sponsorship gaming marathon. Last year, they raised 58,000 dollars, which is nothing to sneeze at. If you’re interested in that, or in other ways of getting involved, check it out here. It’s a simple thing, but it makes a big difference in the lives of soldiers, veterans, and their families.