Lucie Daniel-Watanabe, a PhD student from the University of Cambridge, is working on testing if virtual reality can help people overcome anxiety. She undertakes an experiment with Ninja Theory to test this idea. Although Daniel-Watanabe is not an ardent gamer, her thesis under Paul C. Fletcher, professor of psychiatry, focuses on the effects of VR gaming on mental well-being, especially anxiety.
In their 2021 study, they concluded that fear and anxiety, although seen as distinct entities, may not necessarily be distinct. They also inferred that the data that supports this distinction is inconsistent. With their current VR gaming study, they hope to have a clearer understanding of mental health disorders.
Ninja Theory, under the guidance of Fletcher, released Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice in 2017 which received several accolades. The game’s lead character Senua is an outcast in her community because she has psychosis. This year, the focus is on managing psychological and emotional responses to stress using video games.
Breathe to row your boat
To begin with the experiment, the users undergo the first stage of the training program. The program guides the person on how to breathe with the VR headsets on and the pulse oximeter attached to their finger. The virtual environment takes the user on a boat floating on water. A mellow voice with a calming piece of music would instruct them to breathe in for five seconds. After that, they will be asked to hold their breath for five seconds before releasing it for another five seconds.
This is repeated five times before moving to the second stage which involves putting the users in stressful situations while asking them to remember their breathing techniques. Daniel-Watanabe explains that “it’s teaching you this regulation mechanism and then asking you to apply it in a very stressful situation.”
The monster senses fear
After learning the breathing technique, the participant will find themselves waking up in a dungeon with a monster. This monster can’t see them but can sense fear by listening to their heartbeat. A dial on the top right of the screen will signal them how fast their heart is beating and how close they are to danger with the creature.
If they are as calm as they were on the boat, the dial will display a green light. When their stress increases, the lights turn from green to amber to red. The color red will signify that the dismembered creature will crawl up to them. The participants will feel th monster’s breath on their faces. The participant’s job is to stay calm, which, I imagine, won’t be easy.
This experiment has been performed on two dozen people and is still in its early stages. The researchers hope to see this gamified technique being employed in clinics in the future. This experiment could help people be mindful of their stress and deal with stressful situations more calmly.
YouTube: Could virtual reality help you overcome anxiety
Photo credit: The featured image is symbolic and was taken by Leo Lintang. The images used within the body of the article are owned by Ninja Theory and have been provided for press usage.
Sources: Craig Brierley (University of Cambridge) / Mike Scialom (Cambridge Independent) / ScienceDirect