Have video games changed the world? Sure. Like any mass-market entertainment medium, games have had an impact.
But our sector is on the cusp of a far more significant intervention that could have a very meaningful impact on a great number of lives.
While all media can affect people through emotional or intellectual impact, the advent of virtual reality uniquely positions gaming as one that can not just leave a mark on our reality, but actually alter it completely.
This may sound like a grandiose tabloid strapline, but it's a very real proposition. Anyone that's tried one of the modern VR systems will tell you just how immersive an experience it provides. And this allows software makers to affect people in a way that existing media can only dream of.
The first hints at the possible applications of the technology can be found on Steam right now. A ‘game', if you should even call it that, named Arachnophobia, is not, as the name may sound, an oppressive descent into spider hell. In fact, it takes place at a desk, looking out over New York's Central Park. It's sunny, it's clean. It all looks rather pleasant.
Then a spider is introduced. The first is in a jar, contained to the player's left. Things escalate, however. Soon spiders appear on the desk, near the player's virtual hands. After that they start appearing on the walls.
But that's it. There's no combat, no power ups, no mutant spider boss battle. The whole idea is that the application can be used as a form of exposure therapy designed to help those who have a real life phobia of the critters attempt to become comfortable with them in a controlled and safe environment. Get comfortable with virtual spiders and hopefully real spiders will soon follow.
Exposure therapy is just the start, however. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is another condition that seems ideally suited to VR treatment. This began as far back as 1997 when the Georgia Institute of Technology began experimenting with a program called Vietnam VR that was built to help war veterans reshape their reactions to specific triggers.
A virtual environment offers the chance to not only precisely control the amount and nature of the exposure, but also to ‘practise' a more preferable response. Do this enough in VR, and a person's real-world reactions eventually start to follow the same pattern.
Pain management, too, is embracing VR, primarily as a distraction technique. Early experiments place users in a calming virtual world designed to relax the brain and shift one's focus away from their chronic pain. In the same field, Phantom Limb Pain seems entirely treatable through an assortment of techniques such as mirror therapy.
Frontiers in Neuroscience recently conducted a study in which sensors were used to detect when phantom limb pain was being experienced. Users would then, in a virtual environment, simulate control over a digital version of their missing limb. Bringing this virtual version to a rest could, in some instances, result in reduced pain levels.
The list goes on – VR is already being used for surgical training (Medical Realities recently conducted the world's first livestreamed VR operation) and to assess brain damage. The University of Texas has also started testing VR in the treatment of autism and its impact on social skills. Allowing patients to experience a range of social interactions in VR led to increased activity in the social areas of the brain and, it is hoped, an increased ability to deal with social hurdles.
The possibilities for the disabled and housebound are also quite profound. Experiencing an underwater dive or even a simple stroll through a field may be throwaway experiences for many people, but for those who are unable to leave the house or the hospital, or those who are ostracised from their societies, such experiences are a lifeline.
One of the best things about this revolution is that gaming can be at the very heart of it. While the medical profession is doing remarkable things, games themselves can legitimately hope to change lives as easily as they entertain. We've had video games revolutions before, but perhaps the VR revolution is one that will very literally live up to its billing.
TALENT + FUNDING = SUCCESS
As you read this, an army of coders across the world are working hard to discover new ideas and techniques that will give birth to the next VR innovation. This hard work is not limited to game developers alone.
Companies such as WorldViz, for instance, have been working on VR solutions across a wide number of sectors for over a decade. It recently unveiled a ‘warehouse-scale' solution, similar to HTC Vive's room-scale technology, but scaled up to a far larger area.
VR has tremendous potential as a communication tool. Social interaction and social behaviour studies have been conducted using VR for decades,” WorldViz co-founder and president Peter Schlueer tells MCV.
Today, with new VR hardware and avatar technologies, unprecedented social presence can be achieved in VR that can lead to cures in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients, trauma recovery, anxiety, depression, addiction and many more areas.”
While the creative geniuses that we take for granted in games will be central to this, also vital is the recognition of the state and medical institutions, who will be key to funding such advances.
WorldViz has always been a close partner to universities around the world that conduct research benefiting social good, from improving medical treatment to helping people get over phobias,” Schlueer adds.
For these sorts of projects to continue, it is important that VR continues to be strongly funded by independent research grants. This will help academics bring VR applications to the world
that are driven by forces other than profitability.
On top of that, VR as a new medium will also naturally draw creative individuals to building applications for social good, just as it happens in the film industry. We've already seen this with some film projects highlighting social injustice and others focusing on fostering greater empathy.”