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Betting on Virtual Reality: Treatment of the Future

William Martin, The Priory Academy LSST

Virtual Reality (VR) was our sci-fi future but it is our ‘Here and Now’. Humanity has
welcomed a VR world where frontiers are limitless. One industry that has embraced VR
fully is the Gambling Industry. But gambling is a serious public health issue and treatment
is needed for the thousands affected by its harms every day. Can VR help treat people
too?

The UK has one of the biggest and most lenient gambling markets on the planet. Half the
adult population gamble and two million of these suffer harms such as debt, relationship
troubles, high drug and alcohol use, and mental health problems. Shockingly, an estimated
half a million children already gamble at problematic levels.

VR is a computer-generated system where a set of images and sounds can be interacted
with, in a seemingly real way. The gambling industry has fully embraced VR. Previously,
people had to physically visit casinos to play games, but now they can play wherever they
have a headset- even at home in bed. They can meander around a casino with sounds, and
lights just like the real thing. VR is already driving the gambling industry to a whole new level
and will push the boundaries of its reach even further. The more people play, the more
harms there will be, and then more individuals will need treatment for the so called “hidden
addiction”. Can treatment catch up with such an advancement in technology?

VR is already used in treatment as a form of therapy for phobias. For example, people can
be introduced to their fears, allowing them to face them head on in a safe way (like
interacting with a snake that isn’t really there). The new idea is to use VR for treating
Disordered Gambling using Cue Exposure Therapy. People can feel like they are gambling
but they are actually in a safe place (like their psychologist’s office). This means that they
may be able to do things like walk past a “bookies” (where people go to bet) without going
in, or go in and not bet (like being exposed to a snake), or bet and see how the machines
actually work by cleverly tapping into mechanisms in their brains. For example, games are
designed to be as addictive as possible; lights and sounds help release the neurotransmitter
Dopamine which makes us feel good. They use clever tactics such as losses disguises as wins
(where you win a little but not as much as you originally put in) to tempt you to play more
and more.

The very first study of its kind led by Dr Sharman at Kings College London is trialling VR
treatment for gambling related harms in just this way. He hopes that VR “It will work by
getting individuals to better understand how environment influences behaviour”.
It is early days and in fact, gambling games and machines are still far ahead of the game.
Gambling treatment desperately needs to catch up. It is a bit like the Red Queen in Alice in
Wonderland who says “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”.
However, VR may be the future of gambling treatment and might be able to get ahead for
the first time ever.

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