New methods for treating anxiety, trauma and mental illness are emerging at the intersection of games and therapy


Anxiety haunts a lot of people I know. Sometimes my friends and I trade tips for evading its clutches: deep breathing, white noise apps, staying off Twitter. But what if a virtual reality game could offer something even better: a total sensory oasis from anxiety attacks?

Deep, a virtual reality game developed for the Oculus Rift, has set out to do just that. It's based on the same sort of deep breathing exercises that many anxiety sufferers—and meditation/yoga enthusiasts—are already familiar with, coupled with immersive visuals and audio that make you feel like you're suspended in a dreamy, underwater world. A belt secured around your body senses when you inhale and exhale, causing you to "rise" and "fall" rhythmically within the water as you explore a "zen garden" of coral and colored lights.

Developer Owen Harris had been using breathing exercises to manage his own anxiety for years, and "when VR arrived… I knew exactly what I wanted to do: I wanted to build something where at the end of a stressful day I could just go to, and it'd become my own little isolation tank," Harris told Vice. "I was building this thing for myself; it never really occurred to me to be showing it to other people."

When other people started finding therapeutic value in the game, however, Harris decided that maybe the game had something to offer a wider audience. One of those people was Christos Reid, the developer of Hug Marine, who tried Deep for the first time at a moment when he felt a panic attack was imminent. His response was intense:

"I was just trying to get the words out because I was so emotional, because I had never had such an effective anxiety treatment before. Nothing has ever helped me the way Deep did," Reid told Vice. Harris now hopes that his game will help inspire "a whole new genre of games—games all about breathing" that anyone can play simply by inhaling, including people with serious physical impairments who can't use traditional controllers.

Although there are already lots of two-dimensional games aimed at healing, virtual reality offers a level of sensory immersion and escapism that could have unique therapeutic potential for dealing with anxiety, mental illness and trauma. Although there's already a lot of doomsday fingerwagging about how VR technology will turn people into Ready Player One shut-ins, there's also an opportunity to create profound therapeutic experiences like the one that Reid described.

While I've never played Deep, I had an experience with VR that moved me just as deeply. Last summer, during a particularly difficult time in my life, I found myself at the XOXO Festival's experimental games arcade where a very kind woman invited me to lie down on a nest of pillows on the floor, strap on an Oculus Rift, and sink into an experience called The Relaxatron.

For a few minutes, I was somewhere else: sitting in a tropical forest, hearing birds chirp and watching palm trees sway gently in the breeze as random passersby strolled on a nearby path. I didn't have to do anything, really; I just got to be somewhere else. For a few minutes, the crushing weight and anxiety of my problems was gone, and the moment they lifted away, I found myself weeping with relief. It didn't make everything better—indeed, the same problems were waiting for me the moment I took the headset off. But for a moment they hadn't been, and suddenly that seemed possible again. And in that moment, it was enough.