In a recent story about war veteran and burn victim Sam Brown’s long and painful road to recovery, Jay Kirk sheds light on a new aspect of videogames designed for military use. Unsure how to proceed with a treatment that was causing Brown constant agony, his doctors finally summoned Hunter Hoffman, a cognitive psychologist who builds virtual reality games such as SpiderWorld to help arachnophobes overcome their crippling fears.
The resulting game, SnowWorld, immersed Brown in a world of snowmen and igloos he could pelt with snowballs while his scorched skin was being treated. Think of it as a 21st century version of SkiFree with a nobler cause and much, much larger budget. As captivating as normal videogames may be, Kirk explains that virtual reality technology is more sophisticated when it comes to deceiving the player:
If distraction was the key, why not just use over-the-counter video games for a fraction of the cost? To answer that question, Hoffman had run a control experiment. In his first case study, he had a teenager with a severe flash burn play Nintendo Mario Kart while having five staples removed from a skin graft. The data showed that in terms of reducing pain, anxiety about pain, and time spent thinking about pain, playing Nintendo Mario Kart compared poorly to SpiderWorld. The reason VR was so much more effective than a regular video game came down to a quality called “presence”—that sense of being immersed inside an artificial world
When I first saw this, I kept thinking about how it seemed to dodge the controversy of many videogames built for military use. Kirk goes on to say, however, that the technology may ultimately have broader implications for conflict:
Hoffman can also see battlefield applications. Customized VR worlds will be pre-programmed right into the soldier’s eye gear. He’s already experimenting with piezoelectric crystals to that end. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine a near future in which combat patients could simultaneously distract themselves from their own pain while inflicting it on a virtual and remote enemy.
A soldier could put his mind inside a drone instead of watching as a medic changed his bandages. In such a future of techno-utopian warfare, at least for those combatants equipped to fight outside the pain matrix, victory will indeed belong to those who have rid themselves of the inconvenience of being men and who, for all we know, may as well bleed snow.
That may still be a long while away. For now, I find it comforting that soldiers are being treated with something more substantial (and, according to Jon Irwin, less anomic) than Mario Kart.