Seeing Something for the First Time

 One of the sources I’ve been using during my research is a book entitled On Looking, by Alexandra Horowitz. In it, Ms. Horowitz goes on “lookings” with several experts of different fields (“expert” being a broad term; they can be anyone from a Ph.D. to a bright-eyed child) in order to learn new ways to look at the world around her. With that in mind, I enlisted the help of a friend in order to help me see a small fraction of the world through his eyes.

I’ve played video games for as long as I can remember. From the time I was four years old and learned how to play “Pitfall” on my Atari 2600, video games have – in some way – been an important way for me to pass the time, solve puzzles, or blow off steam.

I’ve never considered their therapeutic aspects.

(Sure, when I was an undergrad and I’d get really frustrated, a couple of hours playing “Grand Theft Auto” were a great way to go around and cause chaos and mayhem without actually hurting someone, but I don’t know if I’d rightly call that “therapy.”)

I’ve written a previous blog post about how some scientists are looking into “Tetris” as a sort of a “cognitive vaccine,” using its visuospatial elements to help stem the effects of traumatic events from becoming full-blown PTSD.

Perhaps they should be investigating “Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.”

A modern combat vet I know well, D.F. (name withheld by request) served in Afghanistan and came home with PTSD and a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). During his last days there, several men in his unit were coming back from patrol; they were all about to be sent home. They stopped along the way to rest when tragedy hit — the minesweeper, metal detector in hand, was suddenly vaporized, right before D.F.’s eyes. Turns out that whoever made the IED he stepped on messed up and it didn’t contain any metal for the detector to detect. A happy accident for the insurgent, a tragedy for the minesweeper.

Ever since D.F. came home, he hasn’t been the same. Whenever there’s a loud noise – a car backfiring, a firecracker, a pallet hitting concrete – he hits the deck. He has nightmares and wakes in cold sweats. He has problems remembering names, dates, faces.

Besides the medication and the therapy, how does he cope? CoD4.

Much of CoD4, you see, takes place in Fallujah, Afghanistan, where D.F. was stationed. When D.F. is having a bad day, he pops in CoD4 and goes back to the scene of the crime.

“It helps me,” he says. “They did a really good job. I know this place by heart. I don’t even need a map.”

As he goes through the town, bad guys pop up and he blows them to hell. Around every corner is danger, but he takes it in stride. With the lights down and the volume all the way up on his large screen TV, one really gets a sense of actually being there.

Like I said, loud noises make D.F. jump. But not here. There are explosions all around him, and the surround sound makes it sound like bullets are actually zipping by your ears. But D.F. takes it all in stride. He is back in combat mode. When he was in the Marines, D.F. was a trained marksman and could take out targets both near and far. When he plays CoD4, he takes up that mantle once more. Nothign else matters but the mission.

“Are you sure this is healthy?” I ask him. “Should someone with PTSD really be trying to relive that which traumatized him in the first place?”

“Sure. Why not? My therapist thinks its a great idea.”

Part of what “messed him up” (his words, not mine) was the complete lack of control that he had when his buddy blew up. One minute he was there, the next minute the whole unit was covered in what was left of him. But with CoD4, D.F. is able to regain that control. Everything is in his hands. He has a bevy of weapons from which to choose. He can go wherever he wants. And he can blow everyone away.

It’s like being there. But it’s safe. And it’s not hot. And he can shoot insurgents in his boxers. In a soft chair. While drinking a beer.

“All of the boom, none of the blood,” he says.

I never thought to look at gaming that way. I never thought it could actually help someone work through their demons before. And if D.F. hadn’t shown me, I may never have believed it possible.

Does it help with his memory problems? No. But does it help him deal with the memories that haunt him? He says it does. And who am I to question that?


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