Cravings are a learned behavior, according to Rosenthal, so just as a person learns to crave a drug, he can also learn not to crave it. The game is meant to trigger cravings in addicts, who can then use learned triggers to make the feeling subside.
"What we're trying to do is take people into a virtual crack-related neighbourhood or crack-related setting and have them experience cravings, just like they would in the real world," Rosenthal said. Because there is no actual drug use in the virtual environment, the craving will eventually subside, which therapists can tie to external stimuli that will eventually help prevent the craving from arising in the first place.
One 52-year-old recovering addict said that the virtual reality treatment succeeded where years of other therapies did not. "The program has done wonders for me. Although I have fallen since I came out of the program, I am clean and have been clean for a good while."
But Rosenthal added that while the program is currently centered on crack abuse, the possibilities of the technique go far beyond that. "This isn't about cocaine, and this really isn't about substance abuse," he said. "This is about creating new learning and extending that learning to the real world."