TRENDING NEWS:  Wed, June 10th 2015

Anxiety Games: For When a Little Distraction Is Good—or Even Necessary

There’s a lot of comfort to be found in virtual worlds.

Technology is often criticized for being distracting. The smartphone, the Apple Watch—they remove you from the physical world and cast you into virtual space, where friends text, alerts ring, and updates flash. But in some cases, this distraction can be a positive thing.

Video games are evolving as a way to literally distract patients from pain. A 2011 study in Pain Research and Management found that test subjects who had a hand submerged in ice-cold water while playing video games “had a significantly higher pain tolerance and reported less pain with the active distraction compared with passive or no distraction.” In other words, the gamers felt less discomfort than those bereft of technology. Video games have become a part of physical therapy routines, where they motivate patients to stretch for goals even while distracting them.

Virtual reality is emerging as a tool to treat PTSD. “You're just taking the person and putting them in an alternate world,” University of Washington psychologist Dr. David Patterson, who created a snowball-throwing therapy game called SnowWorld, told NBC. “And it works for as long as people seem to be in the virtual world.”

In virtual reality, “You distract people from things that are painful and you can motivate people to do things they wouldn’t normally do,” says Skip Rizzo, a longtime virtual reality psychologist at the University of Southern California.

The efficacy of technological distraction in medical treatment seems clearly established. But lately I’ve been wondering how this might apply to the more mundane kinds of distraction we experience with our iPhones on a daily basis. That is, until I realized that I replicate these same experiments all the time.

It turns out that I’ve found a lot of comfort in virtual worlds. Living in New York City, with its constant noise and tumult, the grinding subway wheels and crowded spaces, is a grind. At times it can feel like a long-term evaluation of the effect of ongoing low-grade pain on human beings, particularly since I experience an intermittent but all-consuming fear of getting stuck underground forever on the subway or trapped in a high-rise elevator. To deal with it, not unlike a burn patient in a hospital throwing Patterson’s snowballs, I’ve turned to video games.

My distraction-providers follow, in chronological order, progressing as I required higher doses. I highly recommend them if you’re looking either for a quick, addictive interactive activity, or a way to deal with the anxiety of hurtling underneath a river in a metal tube.

First there was Retry, a hair-trigger game in which players pilot a tiny spinning aircraft through Super Mario-like levels, collecting coins and power-ups. (Note that I avoid playing this while on airplanes, since the constant crashing seems like needlessly tempting fate.)

Technology distracts us from our lives, yes, but it also draws lines through them, isolating particular elements so that we might deal with them one at a time.

Then came Final Fantasy Tactics, a 1998 Sony PlayStation classic that was re-translated for iOS. The game is pure strategy, requiring the player to orchestrate sprawling battles by controlling one character at a time. Tactics almost always has the player on the edge of their seat. Waiting to see if your archer dies during a particularly gruesome encounter is stressful, but I found it just stressful enough to take my mind off everything else that was worrying me.

Technology distracts us from our lives, yes, but it also draws lines through them, isolating particular elements so that we might deal with them one at a time.

Then came Final Fantasy Tactics, a 1998 Sony PlayStation classic that was re-translated for iOS. The game is pure strategy, requiring the player to orchestrate sprawling battles by controlling one character at a time. Tactics almost always has the player on the edge of their seat. Waiting to see if your archer dies during a particularly gruesome encounter is stressful, but I found it just stressful enough to take my mind off everything else that was worrying me.

Technology distracts us from our lives, yes, but it also draws lines through them, isolating particular elements so that we might deal with them one at a time.

Then came Final Fantasy Tactics, a 1998 Sony PlayStation classic that was re-translated for iOS. The game is pure strategy, requiring the player to orchestrate sprawling battles by controlling one character at a time. Tactics almost always has the player on the edge of their seat. Waiting to see if your archer dies during a particularly gruesome encounter is stressful, but I found it just stressful enough to take my mind off everything else that was worrying me.

Headlines: Wed, June 10th 2015