Sun. Dec 4th, 2022

Video games sometimes get a bad rap for consuming all our attention and making us oblivious to the outside world to the point where we lose sight of it and the people in it. I can’t tell you how many times my wife had to walk up and stand between my game controller and TV to get my attention when I was completely engrossed in the game. She hates it and does not understand the puzzled “where did you come from?” the look that usually bathes my face.

Sometimes, however, this disregard for reality and the people around us is just what the doctor ordered. Literally.

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Video games have many ways to create what psychologists call spatial presence and immersion. Immersion usually refers to what happens when one’s entire attention is occupied by something; they can’t look away and stop paying attention to anything else. Happens all the time in games. Spatial Presence is a related but separate phenomenon that occurs when players create and fill a mental representation of the virtual space in which the game takes place. If players are wealthy enough, they may actually begin to prioritize this virtual space as a point of reference for where they are, as their awareness of the technology that mediates their experience falls away. This is achieved by being enveloped in rich sensory information, capturing their mental resources and attention through gameplay and eliminating cues or flaws in the experience that remind them that this is a video game. You might think that virtual reality can create spatial presence and immersion like no other way to play games. And you will be right in this.

If you want more details about spatial presence in games, I wrote a lengthy article about it here, or you can take my book Getting Gamers and read the entire chapter I devoted to this idea.

One interesting application of the immersive quality of video games is pain therapy. People who have suffered severe burns have to undergo extremely painful but necessary procedures in which their skin is stretched. Pain medications are part of this treatment, but if you’ve watched the headlines, you know that opioids are dangerous and not always fully effective. Article from the magazine Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networks described how one 11-year-old boy with severe burns to his feet, arms, shoulders, and head was given an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to use during one of these painful therapy sessions.

Using a virtual reality setup, he and other study participants played a game called Snow World, which was specifically designed to distract players from the outside world. During the game, patients throw snowballs at virtual reality snowmen, igloos, penguins and other representatives of the game’s winter world. The idea, according to the authors, is that SnowWorld “fills the brain with information that captures attention from multiple senses…leaving less attention for pain processing. Patients feel less pain and spend less time thinking about their pain.” Indeed, during the sessions, when patients were immersed in virtual reality, the number of pain self-reports from patients decreased significantly. MRI scans even showed that the areas of the patients’ brains responsible for processing pain signals were less active when they were able to play a game. All thanks to a relatively cheap gaming device.

It’s exciting and touching, and it’s nice to see the exciting qualities of games being put to good use. Although I suspect that a game like SnowWorld is unnecessary and in fact you could see the same success with many commercial games. shove me in Fortnite match or god of War run and you can probably do whatever you want to my skin.

1. Hoffman H.G., Meyer V.J., Ramirez M., Roberts L., Seibel E.J., Atzori B., Sharar S.R. and Patterson D.R. (2014). Possibility of using Oculus Rift virtual reality glasses on an articulated arm for additional pain relief during occupational therapy in children with burns. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networks, 17(6), 397–401.