Avatar Therapy: Would You?

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • I suppose it was just a matter of time before the first avatar patient had a consultation with their avatar therapist. Well, through the medium of Second Life, a virtual world with 20 million users, you can now do just that.


    Second Life resides on the internet as a virtual world. As a ‘resident', you adopt whatever form suits you (an animal, a vegetable, a machine, a ‘human') and off you go. Your avatar chats with others or floats from place to place. Virtual goods can be bought or sold, and now you can even visit your therapist.


    Samantha Murphy, a counselor and freelance writer, outlined the process in September 18 edition of New Scientist. There are, she suggests, some interesting advantages to the approach which conventional therapy is unable to match. A virtual consultation does not require the therapist or client to remain in a clinic or similar setting. They can, for example, actually reconstruct a traumatic scene or undertake forms of role-play in contexts or places that would otherwise be impractical.

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    On typing ‘online therapy' into that well known search engine I received over 52 million possible results. Online therapy is expanding and one of the driving forces seems to be its very practical application. For one thing there is a massive shortage of therapists. Long waiting lists frequently leave people with only their medication to rely upon. Not all clients find getting to a therapist easy or practical, and it can be expensive. Sometimes all a client wants is a little advice or reassurance, so the ability to login to a chat room for a few moments can help. From the therapist's perspective, it is quite easy to extend their case load and schedule varying times and activities according to need.


    Supporters of the Second Life model of therapy say that only the location is fake. The real-time feedback and the emotions expressed are genuine and the virtual nature of the experience quickly takes second place. It's early days, but treatments for depression, anxiety, PTSD, drug and alcohol addiction are just a few of the things being treated successfully, according to the few studies so far undertaken.


    As to the down sides, there may be a few. Murphy suggests that a real therapist with a real person is more likely to feel ethical responsibility and a duty of care. A lot of therapy is about what isn't said, or about the body language. In a virtual world there are no opportunities to see someone becoming tearful or shift in their seat, Murphy says. Avatar therapists, if we may call them that, say it's a trade off. Loss of body language is replaced by more eloquent expression of conscious thought, they say.


    There is something of a lack of regulation with therapy and avatar therapy is no exception. If you consider online therapy as an option within Second Life, look out for the ‘Verified by' logo.


    What are your thoughts? Would you be prepared to sign up for avatar therapy or do you have reservations? Might there be some clients, or circumstances, or situations that are better than others for this type of service?

Published On: October 01, 2010