Future Tense

A Virtual-Reality Game To Distract Burn Victims From Pain

Yesterday, Future Tense described the Biomask, an experimental mask that would help repair extensive facial burns—first in soldiers, then perhaps one day in civilians.

Now a wrenching article in the February issue of GQ investigates another promising new technology to help those who have sustained severe burns: virtual reality. Jay Kirk follows the story of Sam Brown, a West Point grad who suffered extensive burns while serving in Afghanistan—and who found some temporary relief from the overwhelming pain in a virtual reality game called SnowWorld. In SnowWorld, patients play what is basically a first-person shooter with snowballs, while “You Can Call Me Al” plays in the background. “The game play was like a white noise that canceled out the pain—as great a relief as [Brown had] gotten so far during therapy, better even than morphine,” Kirk writes.

Brown was an early participant in a study to determine whether SnowWorld could help distract soldiers from their pain. Kirk notes that the results showed:

soldiers reported significant drops in pain while immersed in SnowWorld. Time spent thinking about pain, which is an inextricable contributor to actual pain, dropped from 76 percent without SnowWorld to 22 percent with SnowWorld. Amazingly, some of the biggest drops were for the most severe levels of pain, which went against every previous expectation. Since then, SnowWorld has received a good deal of enthusiasm from several well-lit corners of the Pentagon. At least one four-star general, after seeing the results from the ISR study, has gone so far as to say that he foresees a day coming soon when VR pain distraction might become standard care. There is nearly equal excitement about Hoffman’s other applications, including one called IraqWorld, a virtual-reality exposure therapy he built to treat soldiers with PTSD.

As full of promise as these virtual reality studies might be, however, Kirk’s focus is primarily on Brown’s real-world struggles to adjust to life after combat duty and serious injury.  

You can see snippets from SnowWorld in the video below, which contains an interview with Brown from 2008.

Read more from GQ.