Avatar Therapy is not new.The term has been discussed theoretically for nearly ten years. But now that virtualworlds have reached the mainstream and with the advent of gaming, many people understand the provocative power that exists with an avatar identity. People now live part of their lives virtually, sometimes existing in a mixed reality. Since technology and the internet have become such a part of our social fabric, separating time “online” from real world time is sometimes difficult and the lines have become blurred.Beyond standard email, people now chat and instant message, join social networks such as Facebook and MySpace and network professionally on sites such as Linkedin. People engage in consultation, business transactions, coaching and psychotherapy online via email, chat, audio and videoconferencing. The idea of engaging in therapy online within a virtual world environment is now reality. Second Life, a virtual world platform that is free to join already hosts private practitioners and mental health agencies offering psycho-education, consumer information and psychotherapy.
Three-dimensional virtual world settings offer another level of sensory experience that could enhance the therapeutic process. People can create an avatar that is a literal or metaphorical representation of self. Avatars can also represent a part of the self- perhaps the inner child or the shadow.With advances in technology and artificial intelligence, the ability to simulate various scenarios with therapy clients is not far off. Artificial intelligent avatars can be used in the therapeutic process to help a client heal from trauma, create a new ending to a dilemma, or work out unfinished business with a deceased loved one. These are but a few examples of how avatar therapy, with the aid of artificial intelligence and facilitation from a trained avatar psychotherapist can benefit people.
Properly trained avatar therapists would have a clear understanding of more traditional approaches to therapy online such as those mentioned above and understand the ethical issues related to online therapy and the delivery of mental health services through technological means. In addition, avatar therapists would have adequate knowledge of the online disinhibition effect as well as trauma related theories so that clients could be adequately prepared for avatar work. Avatar therapists would need to understand the importance of titrating emotions and properly grounding the client using containment techniques.Keeping the client emotionally safe would be paramount in a virtual environment because issues that would typically surface over several months or years could potentially surface much quicker invirtual world setting.
Avatar therapy of the future moves far beyond the therapist and client’s avatar representations engaging in an online form of traditional talk therapy. This futuristic and innovative therapy combines artificial intelligence with elements of traditional psychotherapeutic techniques usedin grief work, and with trauma survivors as examples. Training therapists for this futuristic work can begin now in counseling education programs across the globe as we prepare practitioners to incorporate technology into the art of psychotherapy.