Virtual world creates real-life situations that trigger cravings for drugs, including nicotine, alcohol, marijuana and heroin.

Photo Credit: University of Houston

Photo Credit: University of Houston

Researchers from the University of Houston's Graduate School of Social Work have built a hyper-realistic virtual world to help people overcome their addictions. The simulations recreate situations that trigger cravings for alcohol, marijuana, nicotine and even heroin. 

Many therapists use a method called replacement therapy with addiction patients, which involves the therapist pretending to be a friend or family member to offer them their drug of choice. This helps to teach avoidance strategies. Putting people in actual situations, like a party, through a virtual world can make this type of treatment much more realistic and ultimately more effective. 

The idea is to get addicts to crave their drug of choice and then have them to make a choice not to use.

“Video games create fantasy, but in my lab, it’s reality,” Patrick Bordnick, the lab’s director and founder, told Vice. “We have to make it real. The drink can’t look like some drink that you’d see in World of Warcraft, or something like that. An alcohol-dependent person knows their drink and what it looks like. If it’s not the right color, if it doesn’t look like a real whiskey, that’s not gonna make that situation applicable to them.”

The lab has created several scenarios that may trigger drug use, including a pizza party, an office courtyard and a gas station. They've made these environments as realistic as possible, even including the smells, to help addicts and their therapists address the visceral feelings that led to the addictions. In these sessions, a virtual reality headset and a treadmill is used to place patients in these scenarios, while a scent machine adds to making the environments more real. 

“If there’s people eating pizza in the restaurant, you smell pizza. And marijuana, obviously,” Bordnick said. “We have raw marijuana smell, marijuana smoke, incense, anything that’s associated with the drug. If you go outdoors, we have sort of a pine, or outdoorsy, scent.”

To ensure the virtual reality therapy was successful, Bordnick's team went out and researched, for example, drug dens and user injection rituals. All the information collected was used to create virtual simulations that closely mimic the real thing. 

 Bordnick hopes to eventually make the virtual reality addiction therapy available to the masses by integrating the virtual environments into smartphones so the strategies can be practiced anywhere. 

See one of the addiction therapy simulations in the video below.