A recent story on Forbes.com reported on a new study about the effects of playing massively-multiplayer online games on one’s cognitive abilities. Conducted on a small sample group of 39 adults between the ages of 60 and 77, the study wanted to find out if playing World of Warcraft for a few hours a day would help stave off dimentia and other effects of aging. Although the sample size is far too small and the length of the study was too short to be statistically significant, the study did show marked gains in brain activity,
Interestingly, the volunteers who saw the greatest improvements in cognitive abilities were those who had scored lowest on the initial, baseline test that had been administered two weeks prior.
It’s an impressive result, even if it’s essentially just anecdotal, but it shows promise for further study.
As I was putting this post together, it reminded me of another study that demonstrated another medical benefit of virtual worlds. Back in 2008, I read a story about a specialized virtual world being used to help burn victims. Called Snow World, the environment was designed, less to simulate a cold environment–although that was thought to help–but to immerse the patient in a novel situation, leaving their brain too occupied with navigating the world to process the incoming pain signals. It was a novel idea four years ago and showed promise. A moving piece in GQ last month featured a soldier who survived extensive burns from an IED, only to be faced with debilitating pain that ordinary, hallucinogenic-strength painkillers couldn’t mitigate. Army First Lieutenant Sam Brown’s treatment with Snow World was limited to one visit as part of a clinical study, but the results apparently proved effective enough that it is still being pursued as a pain treatment by the Pentagon and National Institute of Health today. The thought is that the world will be particularly helpful for veterans returning with horrific injuries, both physical and psychological, from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So what does any of this have to do with the law? Well, I remembered an entry I wrote a few years ago about people who suffered from virtual world addictions. A man in Korea died after going without sleep for days while playing a virtual world and a couple ignored their newborn baby for so long it died of malnutrition. While isolated incidents, if virtual worlds could be used as a new form of pain therapy, it’s possible that they could come to be regulated the way opiates are today. We’re clearly a long way off, but with most worlds designed to be addictive, it’s not far-fetched to imagine that therapeutic use could some day become so wide-spread that they have to be controlled. Who would make those determinations: the FDA, the DEA, the FCC, the FBI, the Department of Justice? Would the government regulate exactly how addictive virtual worlds could be? Would those regulations infringe on freedom of expression the same way that Congressional attempts to ban violent videogames have? This is certainly speculative, but anything could happen if something goes wrong. We have a very reactionary political system and legislative histories with headline-grabbing events are not encouraging. Hopefully, we’ll only hear of the medical wonders these worlds can provide and this blog can be looked back on with bemusement.