Virtual schizophrenia

Wagner James Au is an “embedded journalist” inside Second Life, an online multiplayer game where users can build their own houses and fill them with objects of their own design. He’s been blogging about it for over a year now, profiling scores of people who’ve built gorgeous, intricate, or bizarre environments. At one point, he even happened upon a woman who was homeless in the real world but had a massive compound in the the virtual one.

This week he reports on a new find: A house that has been designed to represent the internal state of a person with schizophrenia. It was created by a university mental-health researcher, and is based on descriptions of hallucinations taken from interviews with real-life schizophrenia patients. The idea, of course, is to do something that only a virtual-reality game can do — which is to allow outsiders to experience, first-hand, the terrifying weirdness of a schizophrenic episode. Au toured and it wrote an excellent description:

Things change, as you approach them, but the shift is subtle. A poster suddenly shifts to contain obscenities; a single word in a newspaper headline suddenly becomes the only word you see. A bookshelf seems to contain nothing but volumes about fascism. And most disturbing to me, a bathroom mirror which contains your reflection becomes, when you come closer, a bloody death mask. The man in the mirror is actually a model, but the hallucination is based on the testimony of a schizophrenic who stopped shaving, because when he looked in the mirror, he’d see his corpse staring back at him. (And when you get close enough to the sink, you hear the strains of bagpipes— because this is the music the man heard too, when he glimpsed his own death.) [snip]

Other shifts are less subtle. The floor falls away into sky, when you start to walk on it. A gun suddenly appears on a table, and a spotlight is cast on it, while a voice keeps commanding you to pick it up, and kill yourself. (This is based on the testimony of a schizophrenic who was arrested after he tried to snatch the pistol from a police officer’s holster.) A stereo broadcasts a radio news program — which, if you listen to it for more than a few seconds, begins speaking to you.

It’s another great example of how useful off-the-shelf video games are becoming at simulating real-life problems. The doctors previously had spent months trying to build a schizophrenia sim from scratch, using a Silicon Graphics workstation, and it didn’t look as good as what they were able to do inside Second Life in only three weeks — since the game was designed to allow its “citizens” to quickly create their own stuff.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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