Amputee support, games health research and avatar perceptions

(This story originally appeared over at sister-site Metaverse Health earlier this week).

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a spike in mainstream media interest around virtual environments and health. I thought it’d be worth showcasing three notable stories / issues that you may not be aware of.

Amputee Support

A press release from ADL Company Inc. and Virtual Ability, Inc. touts the launch of a project to provide peer-support to those who have undergone amputation of a limb. The project’s impetus has come about due to some sobering US-based facts:

Recent US military casualty figures for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom indicate that between September 2001 and mid-January 2009 over a thousand amputation injuries occurred. Of the 935 amputations considered major, one in five wounded warriors lost more than one limb. While the rehabilitation goal is for the soldier to return to active duty, many reintegrate into their civilian communities. In either case, military amputations are often accompanied by additional wounds, depression, fear, phantom limb pain, and post traumatic stress disorder.

Spouses and family members often become the caregivers of military amputees after they are released from military hospitals and rehabilitation programs. Family support members have their own grieving process to go through related to the amputation and to the change to family life.

The platform for the project is the recently released Second Life Enterprise product, meaning that users have a greater deal of privacy to explore issues in a group context. You can also read about the project from the perspective of ADL Inc’s President, and regular virtual worlds writer, Doug Thompson (SL: Dusan Writer).

Avatars: Perceptions of Self

New Scientist has a good article on a study looking at brain activity (as measured by MRI) when discussing perceptions of real self versus a heavily played World of Warcraft character. The methodology:

To probe what brain activity might underlie people’s virtual behaviour, Caudle’s team convinced 15 World of Warcraft players in their twenties – 14 men and 1 woman – who play the game an average of 23 hours a week, to drag themselves away from their computers and spend some time having their brains scanned using functional MRI.

While in the scanner, Caudle asked them to rate how well various adjectives such as innocent, competent, jealous and intelligent described themselves, their avatars, their best friend in the real world and their World of Warcraft guild leader.

For the early results, read the article, but essentially things aren’t black and white about how we perceive ourselves versus our avatars. No big surprise there. One particularly interesting signpost for future research is the idea that those who perceive themselves and their avatars in a similar way may be the individuals at higher risk for addictive behaviours in regards to their use of virtual environments.

Health Games Research

Health Games Research is a website well worth perusing. It’s a US-based organisation devoted to “research to advance the innovation and effectiveness of digital games and game technologies intended to improve health”. There are yearly grants for research into games and health, with the 2009 funding round announced last week.

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