Addiction Games – How Virtual Reality Could Help Solve The Drug Problem

If you google ‘technology’ and ‘addiction’, the most likely thing that will happen is you will get a whole load of results pertaining to “internet addiction” [1] and “smartphone addiction” [2]. However, if you do some careful scrolling, hidden amongst the horror stories, you may find something incredibly positive: new virtual technology is helping people to overcome addictions – and there is plenty of scope for developing this kind of aid in the future.

Real Life Is Too Hard

Relapse is one of the major problems facing addicts of all kinds. Scientists are aware that relapse frequently occurs when addicts encounter “reminders of past use” [3]. It is all very well to role-play refusing or avoiding alcohol or drugs in treatment centers – but in the real world, it’s a very difference story. An addict, stepping into an environment of temptation, experiences an assault on every sense which conventional therapy simply cannot replicate in a safe environment. The only way to learn the kind of mental skills you need to avoid relapse is to smell the smoke, hear the glug of the wine, or feel the syringe in your hand – and then refuse to participate. It’s a difficult process, which takes an incredible amount of practice, yet no rehab clinic has been able to safely replicate the kind of environments in which addicts may encounter temptation. Until now.

Virtual Reality

The expanding scope of virtual reality provides an immense amount of possibilities as far as real-world applications are concerned. Most people associate virtual reality sets with gaming, but the fact is that the ability to more or less recreate (or create) a situation for someone has an immense amount of potential for all kinds of things. Children play, in essence, in order to teach themselves about the world they’re training to engage with – but in a safe manner. Play enables them to try out adult skills within safe parameters, honing their skills and techniques until they’re able to take them out into the potentially damaging adult world. Virtual reality could provide precisely the same kind of ‘safe space’ for addicts.

Virtual ‘Safety’

Researchers at the University of Houston in Texas have been working on developing their virtual reality technology towards helping troubled people develop coping skills which could help them in real-world situations. Addicts brought into such a program would don a virtual reality headset, and find themselves immersed in a customized environment, perfectly tailored to hit their weak spots as far as craving is concerned. A party, for example, complete with the sweaty press of bodies, pounding music, and the scent of nicotine and marijuana. Or a bar, with clinking glasses, a low murmur of conversation, and a cold beer resting alluringly on the tabletop. Exactly the kind of situations, in short, in which an addict may well succumb to temptation and undergo a relapse. The brain is fooled, but the body is in no actual danger of relapse, because (of course) the situation is not real. The addict can thus ‘relapse’ as many times as they need to – safely – before they begin to develop the requisite psychological tools to resist temptation and stay on the wagon. After some time spent resisting virtual temptations, the theory is that addicts should be far better able to take on the (admittedly much harder) challenge of staying clean and sober in real-life situations.

Early Days

The program has experienced a degree of success with quitting smokers and alcoholics, which is inspiring the team responsible to expand their remit to harder drugs, like heroin. Of course, while the technology can help addicts psychologically to kick the habit, the essential neurochemical and biological aspects of addiction would still need to be combatted by medical professionals. It’s early days yet for the concept, and the technology doubtless needs some fine-tuning, but it’s an exciting step forward for virtual technology. The world has plenty of problems, but, hopefully, the expanding borders of technology are beginning to provide us with some solutions.

[1] Kim Komando, “Tips For Fighting Internet Addiction”, USA Today, 2002

[2] Caitlin Dewey, “What your smartphone addiction actually looks like”, The Washington Post, Oct 2014

[3] Addict Science, “Why Relapse Is Common”