By Adam Ashton
Monday, January 31, 2011; 6:50 AM
TACOMA, WASH. - Virtual soldiers for years have experienced adrenaline-pumping combat scenes in "Call of Duty" and other video games.
Real veterans might want to check out a new Pentagon video game whose main challenge is comfortably navigating a visit to a shopping mall.
The Defense Department this month unveiled the T2 Virtual PTSD Experience, a project developed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord that lets users explore the causes and symptoms of combat trauma.
It's intended to help soldiers and their loved ones learn about post-traumatic stress in an anonymous setting. It can be used on Second Life, a popular virtual reality platform that can be downloaded for free.
"We hope that providing a place like this in Second Life will give you a chance to get back your first life," Kevin Holloway, one of the program's developers, says in an introductory video that tours "Psychological Health Island" on Second Life.
Holloway is a psychologist and researcher at the National Center for Telehealth and Technology, a three-year-old Pentagon program housed at Lewis-McChord in Washington state. It's charged with developing gadgets and programs that encourage soldiers to access mental health services.
In October, the center released a mobile phone application that helps soldiers track their moods. Its biggest project was a Web site, Afterdeployment.org, that provides information about how to readjust to civilian life after serving in combat.
"We know that a lot of warriors are not accessing the health care that they need," said Greg Reger, a psychologist and administrator at the center who worked on the new virtual reality program.
He hopes the anonymity of Second Life will empower soldiers and veterans to find guidance about post-traumatic stress without fear of social or professional repercussions. About 51 percent of officers and enlisted soldiers think that accessing behavioral health services would affect their careers, despite assurances that they would not be held back, according to a September report on Army suicides.
Meanwhile, one in five soldiers who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan report symptoms of post-traumatic stress or major depression, according to a 2008 Rand Corp. study.
The T2 Virtual PTSD Experience emphasizes that post-traumatic stress is a common reaction to combat.
It begins with visitors choosing avatars to represent themselves in Second Life. Reger said the Defense Department does not intend to monitor the site; it's up to visitors to decide how much personal information to disclose.
The program guides users through a scenario in an Afghan marketplace that could trigger post-traumatic stress. It explains the various emotional connections that might develop over time.
Throughout the scenario, users can monitor their stress and click away to a "relaxation room" where they can look at calming images and practice soothing breathing techniques.
The program also can guide visitors through a typical suburban mall, a setting that's known to make veterans feel uncomfortable if they're struggling with post-traumatic stress. The mall scenario can be played like a game, with soldiers scoring points for having healthy interactions in the shopping center.
In addition to those scenarios, the virtual world includes tips on coping with PTSD and information about how to seek professional therapy.
"We think this is going to be helpful not only to warriors who have been deployed," Reger said, "but also to friends and family members who want to learn more about the changes their loved ones might experience after coming home."