Attrition: The Nightmare Cure


June 30, 2009: The U.S. Department of Defense has modified one of the U.S. Army's training games (Full Spectrum Warrior, or FSW) to help therapists treat combat veterans suffering from combat fatigue (PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder). FSW is your basic first-person shooter video game, but much more realistic. To turn FSW into a PTSD treatment tool, a new set of scenarios were created, and smells were added. The "virtual therapy" enables troops with PTSD to confront their fears, and learn to cope with them. The modified FSW was called Virtual Iraq.

It was over three years ago that U.S. Army medical researchers noted how soldiers that played violent video games, were better able to handle the stress of combat. More elaborate (virtual reality) combat simulations were developed to treat combat veterans who are suffering from severe stress reactions from combat. This work led to the development of Virtual Iraq, and over forty systems have been created and put to work so far.

 The U.S. Army has been studying combat fatigue (or PTSD) a lot more these days. When the fighting in Iraq was at its peak, about 400 soldiers a year were sent home from Iraq because of severe PTSD. In addition, there were thousands of troops with less serious bouts of PTSD, which are treated in Iraq, with the soldier soon returning to duty.

 What the army is up against is something they discovered during World War II. Back then, PTSD was called combat fatigue, and it was a serious problem. In the European Theater, 25 percent of all casualties were serious PTSD cases. In the Pacific Theater, the rate varied widely, depending on the campaign. In some of the most intense fighting, like Okinawa in 1945, it accounted for over a third of all wounded.

 Israel has done a lot of work in finding new ways to diagnose PTSD, and has also noted the video game effect. Israeli researchers used highly realistic virtual reality type systems to enable patients to relive the combat situations that triggered the PTSD, and learn to cope with it.

 This may all sound counterintuitive, and that's what outsiders (including some journalists) thought when they first came across combat troops playing violent video games to unwind after a day in combat. When asked, the troops generally shrugged and commented along the lines of, "it relaxes me." A military historian would point out that, in the past, troops often sought out violent, or stressful, entertainments when given some respite from combat. During the World Wars, troops on leave would, after getting cleaned up and sleeping for twelve hours, go gamble, or engage in team sports. They were looking for some excitement. Farther back in history, a little hunting, or looting (or worse) was always popular between battles.

 It's another case of something, that's been around for a long time, getting noticed, and put to use more deliberately and aggressively.


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