Friday, 16 September 2011

Cognitive Bias Modification - Can Playing Games Help in the Treatment of Addictions?

In May 2011 The Economist wrote an article on Cognitive Bias Modification (CBM), a new form of therapy that can effectively treat conditions such as anxiety and addictions without the need for traditional methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy (typically consisting of 12-16 hour talk therapy sessions) or drugs.  How does it work? All it requires is sitting in front of a computer and using a program that subtly alters harmful thought patterns, and is found to be effective after only a few 15 minute sessions.

Researchers are now beginning to explore CBM.  Reinout Wiers from the University of Amsterdam and his collaborators conducted a study to test the application of CBM on 214 patients suffering from alcoholism. Their results showed that a group of patients that were subject to four 15 minute sessions over four consecutive days showed that the patients "approach bias for alcohol had changed to an avoidance bias, on a variety of tests", whereas the control group showed no such changes. In the US, a team from Harvard University are looking to launch a month-long programme that will use smart phones to assess the techniques effects on anxiety.

The idea that human interaction with computers and playing games can help in conditioning behaviours and treating addictions is very interesting, especially when considered in the context of the gaming and gambling industries. Why? Whilst the use of CBM in a clinical context is an emerging field one could argue that gaming designers and operators are masters in the application of CBM. An article in Forbes titled Zynga "Appeals to the Same Psychology as Gambling" sheds some light on this. Jeff Tseng, an analytics expert, states that whilst FarmVille "is not gambling, it’s a similar mechanic,” and that “it appeals to the same psychology as gambling does.” FarmVille's success has been attributed to its game mechanics, in that it has been designed to hook people in to keep returning to the game. It's also very well integrated with social media features which are now part of everyday life. In gambling these principles apply too, although game mechanics are often referred to as the structural charecteristics of a game by researchers e.g. methods for paying and receiving winnings, speed of play, gambling features such as maximum stake allowed, and ambience through as the use of stimulating light. An interesting article from Gamsutra titled 'Ethos Before Analytics' takes a deeper look into game design and behavioural conditioning.

Whilst the continuing uptake of new technologies in the industry, such as behavioural analytics, is helping players make more informed decisions to prevent the onset of problem gaming, CBM could be used alongside traditional forms of treatment to help treat addiction. We think there is an exciting opportunity for the gambling research community and game designers to collaborate and test whether the same game mechanics that are used to make games addicitive can also be applied to developing CBM-type games that can help treat gaming addictions. Although it is somewhat ironic to ask the very game designers who are making games addictive to collaborate in the development of games that can help treat addictions.