Seinfeld and first person shooters: Virtual treatment for PTSD

It’s not often that Seinfeld and first person shooter (FPS) video games come together, but they do when looking at the uses of anxiety induction in virtual environments.

Why would you want to actually induce anxiety, I wondered. It turns out that anxiety induction can be used to inoculate medical responders and soldiers to stressful situations; treat stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder; in phobia therapy and more.

Anxiety induction is used to give better coping strategies for people in difficult real world situations - to improve their effectiveness in the field and prevent the potentially harmful effects of exposure to traumatic events.

Seinfeld comes in with the existing approaches that psychology and neuroscience experiments take to induce anxiety. Traditionally these have relied on such things as use of disturbing images, time-constrained difficult mental tasks and even assigning participants public speaking assignments. Seinfeld draws attention to the fact that fear of public speaking is greater even than fear of death - meaning that people would rather be in the casket that giving the eulogy...

On the serious side, because of the improved controllability and management of VEs they can be utilised more effectively in psychology and neuroscience experiments to analyse such things as attention, learning and memory, executive functions and control of emotional reactions

There are also VE applications in persuasive technology where, for example, younger generations have grown cynical toward traditional media. A quick connection made between cause and effect in a VE can persuade people to change attitudes or behaviours - for example with regard to exercise, safety, climate change and so on. Anxiety induction can discourage negative behaviour with aversive feedback in the VE. This could be particularly useful in changing perceptions of risk that are normally underestimated - such as evacuating a building.

The quick connection between cause and effect brings us to the FPS games.

The paper I’m using as the basis for this post, which is entitled ‘Anxiety induction in virtual environments: an experimental comparison of three general techniques’ looks at three approaches to provide a formal anxiety induction evaluation, and two of them (the first two) are already in common use in video games:

  • A ‘health bar’ for an avatar;
  • Additional audio-visual stimuli, in this case a preset heartbeat sound;
  • A biofeedback mechanism to control heartbeat sound.

See FPS’s are not all bad. Or Seinfeld.

The full paper appears in the November 2014 issue of Interacting with Computers.

More about Interacting with Computers

IwC is the interdisciplinary journal of human-computer interaction, published in cooperation with OUP, and is an official publication of BCS and the Interaction Specialist Group. Publishing accessible, interdisciplinary research papers and cutting-edge thematic special issues on human-computer interaction, the journal has a strong and growing impact factor, a high ranking and excellent indices.

BCS Members can get a reduced subscription.

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About the author

Brian is Head of Content at BCS and blogs about the Institute’s role in making IT good for society, historical developments in computing, the implications of CS research and more.

See all posts by Brian Runciman

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