Overcoming Your Biggest Fears with Gaming Technology

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What are you most scared of? Snakes? Spiders? Heights?

If your phobias are the run-of-the-mill variety, there’s a very good chance you’re in luck. Why?

Therapists are treating these sorts of fears now in the safety of their own offices—courtesy virtual reality gaming technology.

Take the case of a man named Dick Tracey (not be confused with Dick Tracy). Tracey used to be quite scared of heights. But that’s all changed, thanks to an innovative counselor and the a simple gaming virtual reality headset. Here’s what the Associated Press had to say:

Through VR, [Tracey] rode an elevator to a high-rise atrium that looked so real he fell to his knees. “I needed to search with my hand for something solid around me,” he said. He told himself, “I must look stupid. Let’s just stand up. Nothing’s going to happen.” …VR therapy made life simpler for Tracey. After seven VR sessions, he now easily parks his car atop a multi-story garage. He stood on the flat roof of his house to clean his carport. “I would never have dreamed of doing that before,” he said. “I now know how much the fear of heights restricted my everyday life.”

As exciting as this new development is, I’m trying to get my arms around how VR might work for me. I admit I’m not a big fan of rats. I haven’t seen a lot of them in my life, but when I do, they give me the heebie jeebies! So, I put on this headset and computer-generated rodents start scurrying all around me? How many? One? Thousands? Then rat armies begin to crawl up my body? What if they start chewing on some body part in this virtual world? Am I supposed to just go with the flow, telling myself it’s not real? And how is that supposed to help me the next time some rat darts out of a dark crawl space in real life? Am I supposed to go, “Oh, hi there, my  Ratatouille-like friend?!” I don’t think so!

I’m glad this technology is being used to help people overcome their fears. But with me, I think the VR therapists still have a lot more work to do…if I ever go in for therapy! Too scared of the bill! What’s the VR cure for that?!

Who wrote this?

Bob Waliszewski is the director of the Plugged In department. His syndicated "Plugged In Movie Review" feature is heard by approximately 9 million people each week on more than 1,500 radio stations and other outlets and has been nominated for a National Religious Broadcaster's award. Waliszewski is the author of the book Plugged-In Parenting: How to Raise Media-Savvy Kids With Love, Not War. You can follow him on Twitter @PluggedInBob.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Skulatikus 3 months ago
I'd never even considered the possibility of using VR for exposure therapy, but it sounds brilliant. As an owner of a VR headset, I can attest to how real the virtual worlds seem when you're surrounded by them, and I can see how it could be quite helpful in overcoming phobias.

That said, I can also see how it might be too much for some people. VR can be really unsettling when you're exposed to something scary. I've showed my VR system to a few friends and relatives, and I always had them try out one part where they're standing on a rope bridge over a canyon. I'd then ask them if they could bring themselves to step off the bridge. After all, they'd just be stepping on the floor in my room: there wasn't an actual drop. Even so, some of them couldn't bring themselves to do it. Those who could invariably took a long time to work up the courage.

It's easy to tell yourself "it's not real," but when your senses are all telling you the opposite, it's still intense.

Tangentially Related: VR can be even more unsettling when it's actively trying to scare you. I tried a game a while back that involved exploring a dark, spooky castle. Since the game provided me with a weapon to fight back against any monsters, I thought there was nothing to worry about. I've played spooky games before, and as long as I could defend myself, I was never really scared.

When a six-foot-tall ghoul jumped me as I turned a corner, though, I changed my mind. It didn't matter that the creature itself didn't look all that scary. What mattered was that it was as tall as I was, snarling, and flailing its claws in my face. I thought my heart was about to beat out of my chest.

Needless to say, I never finished that game.