“Family of Heroes”: A Virtual Solution to Some Very Real Problems

A scene from the Family of Heroes simulation

Deployment can affect many people beyond the veterans themselves. With a great number of vets returning from active service suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) or depression, friends, family members and others in a serviceperson’s life can be placed under considerable strain when a tour of duty is over.

Fortunately, new technology brings with it new solutions. “Family of Heroes” is one such tool.

Developed by Kognito Interactive in collaboration with the VA of NY/NJ Healthcare Network, “Family of Heroes” is an online resiliency training simulation whereby family members learn essential skills for adjusting to post-deployment life through virtual role-playing. Put another way, it’s a learning device for conversation tactics.

The participant – the family member or friend – logs on at www.familyofheroes.com – and selects one of three conflict scenarios: a wife talking to her veteran husband; a husband talking to his veteran wife; or a mother talking to her veteran son. The scenarios are based on real stories gathered in interviews with veterans and their families. The objective is to navigate through the scenarios as smoothly as possible, picking up cues and learning resiliency skills as you go.

At each stage of the conversations, the participant is offered various responses they can choose from. The computer avatar (representing the veteran) will respond according to the response option that the participant chose for their own avatar. Think of it as a rehearsal for reality: the opportunity to speak with an “intelligent avatar” to prepare for typical conversations and arguments that occur between post-deployment veterans and those close to them.

Throughout the conversations, an on-screen intensity meter gauges the “temperature” of the exchange. If the meter goes into the red, it’s a signal that choosing the timeout option might be a good idea. Hence, the meter acts as a kind of silent coach for the exercise.

Launched in September, 2011, “Family of Heroes” has already been accessed by 56,351 users and drawn very positive feedback. The training is currently available in New York, New Jersey and Arizona. It will be launched, soon, in Virginia. Some user testimonials can be seen at http://vimeo.com/28357942. It has also received considerable media coverage, including this segment on NPR radio: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/bl/2011/dec/02/family-heroes-video-games-veterans/.

Avatar-based simulations are now used in a variety of fields and their emergence as a tool in mental health care has been a boon. “Family of Heroes” continues this trend and addresses a genuine need of the military community.

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