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Virtual World as Pain Medication

Virtual reality has long been used, or sought to be used, for therapeutic purposes. Giuseppe Riva and others have been interested in the applications of virtual reality and virtual worlds for medical and psychological therapies for over two decades — almost from the beginning of research into virtual worlds technologies.

On September 2nd, NBC Nightly News in the United States reported on Dr. Hunter Hoffman’s SnowWorld project. While you can learn more specifics about the project’s research by visiting the website, this brief news story, and its web-only follow-up, are interesting for two reasons that relate to people’s sense-making of virtual worlds.

First, as a discussion of virtual worlds technologies within the more mainstream, public sphere of a largely watched nightly news program, the news story could help non-users make sense of virtual worlds:

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Most likely, when people who are non-users of virtual worlds technologies hear about such media products, their perception and interpretation of them is of games people (i.e. young, socially isolated men) waste their time with, become addicted to, spend too much money on, and so forth. Here is a news story discussing a more serious application of this technology, and linking it with the military, which is the most serious institution in the United States. This news story could be an example of a shift in sense-making about these technologies as they begin to diffuse and more fully integrate into people’s everyday lives.

Second, what this broadcast story and the web-only content illustrate is an important aspect of virtual worlds technologies for researchers consider. What’s interesting is that in the web-only content part of this story is that the news report expands the story to discuss a woman who uses the virtual world and hypnosis to alleviate her chronic pain:

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What is interesting about this connection is that the focus is not on the virtual worlds technology as alleviating the pain, but on the role of the mind in the situation of engaging with the virtual world. By connecting, through editing, engaging with a virtual world to the completely psychological process of hypnosis, the focus of the discussion moves away from the technology and on to the perceptions and interpretations of the technology by the person, and how these reactions relate to a sense of presence and the creation of a mental distraction to focus the brain away from reacting to pain receptors in the body. To me, this indicates the importance of remembering the role of interpretation when discussing what is a virtual world and what a virtual world means to the person engaging with it.

To find out more about this line of research, search our public collection for relevant articles.

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2 Responses

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  1. CarrieLynn says

    More public interest on the use of virtual worlds technologies for the treatment of phobias. The New York Times has a nice, long, in-depth article here:

Continuing the Discussion

  1. User-Centered Design and Web Accessibility Blog - AniktoBlog » Blog Archive » Video Games, Mobile Health, Virtual Reality and Accessibility linked to this post on 2010/10/31

    [...] that of medication. Some researchers believe this to be an important factor going forward in treatment programs for chronic pain patients: What is interesting about this connection is that the focus is not on the virtual worlds [...]

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