Using Avatars as an Addiction Cure - NBC Southern California

Using Avatars as an Addiction Cure

Avatar technology used for drug and alcohol rehab



    Using Avatars to Help Addicts Get Clean

    The use of 21st-century thinking and technology may help people recover from drug addiction. (Published Tuesday, June 7, 2011)

    Many addicts will tell you being under the influence of drugs or alcohol takes you into a virtual world, where everything is happier.

    Now, patients at the Janus Community Clinic in Santa Cruz are using virtual technology to help kick their habit.

    They're using avatars in role playing.

    "Until now, all you had was your imagination, and hoping (patients) will be candid enough with you," said Ivana Steigman, co-founder of InWorld Solutions out of Palo Alto, which developed the avatar technology. 

    Steigman said the treatment virtually exposes the patients to the triggers that set off their symptoms, with hope that those symptoms will diminish.

    During our visit to the clinic, Leslie Strauss was counseling Miguel Rivera using role playing avatars on separate computers.

     Rivera is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.

    "I was 19 when I went to prison. It was the only clean time I really had," said Rivera.

    Rivera said the avatars are helping him stay clean.

    "It's just helpful to recognize the triggers and why I was doing what I was doing."

    As the counselor, Strauss sometimes plays the role of heroin, or cocaine.

    "I will talk to them about how attractive I am," said Strauss. "How I will make them feel good, how they can forget everything, how they can be totally relaxed and feel good." 

    It's helping patient Kara Pardini.

    "I was a heroin addict and was pregnant with my son, who's three," said Pardini.

    Pardini has been clean for four years, and credits avatar technology for keeping her honest. 

    "When you're sitting face to face, being an addict, you're used to lying and used to manipulating," said Pardini.

    Pardini said the avatar allows her to be honest, and let it all out. 

    The program developers will present the results of their pilot program to the American Psychology Association conference in Washington, D.C. in August.

    They used the same technology to help returning veterans deal with PTSD.

    Steigman stresses that the program does not replace face-to-face therapy.

    She said SEGA and Electronic Arts are already using the technology in their gaming programs, and she hopes those developers help in expanding avatar for patients.

    Steigman asked how many mummies can you kill on those games, yet they can't improve and mass produce technology than can possibly help save real lives.