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 iThrive Games — a nonprofit that partners with game developers, researchers and youth organizations to facilitate the use of video games to enhance social and emotional skills — is proud to announce today that its executive director, Dr. Susan Rivers, and frequent collaborator, Dr. Doris C. Rusch, have won the Audience Choice Award for their joint project, Soteria VR, a virtual reality video game designed to deliver evidence-based anxiety-management techniques. The award was given at the Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Lab hosted by Brainstorm — Stanford’s Laboratory for Brain Health Innovation and Entrepreneurship — at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

As part of this collaborative and cross-disciplinary event, six pre-selected entrepreneurs from around the country gave startup ideas for using virtual reality or augmented reality technology to improve brain and behavioral health. Following a “Shark Tank”-style pitch to the lab’s panel of expert judges and conference audience, teams broke into work sessions with audience members and expert mentors across the business, tech and medical fields to refine their ideas. Finalists then re-entered their enhanced ideas to the panel for final review and winner selection.

Brainstorm’s Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Lab awarded two prizes. The Grand Prize went to a team from Simon Fraser University in Canada for their idea to use VR to assist in addiction recovery by preventing relapse. The Audience Choice Award went to Soteria VR, which promotes real-time mindset shifts to cope with anxiety.

“Designing VR experiences — especially games — for therapy is not widely embraced now. We see incredible promise in using immersive technologies to relieve suffering among individuals struggling with mental illness,” said Dr. Rivers. “Brainstorm provided an incredible opportunity to share our approach and engage with experts in mental health and technology to push our work forward. The fact that the audience selected our game as the Audience Choice Award winner is also very rewarding and further validates that that the work we’re doing does have a powerful impact.”

“Virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR) offer a lot of potential to transform the way that we, as physicians, diagnose and treat diseases like PTSD, autism, anxiety and opioid use,” said Dr. Nina Vasan, the Founder and Director of Stanford Brainstorm and Chief Resident in Psychiatry at Stanford. “Brainstorm wanted to capture this potential by identifying promising VR/AR applications and working with entrepreneurs to develop ventures that are effective from the medical, business, and technological perspectives.”

Soteria VR expands on an earlier, award-winning PC version of the game called Soteria: Dreams As Currency, developed by Dr. Rusch and her team at the Deep Games Laboratory (previously “Play 4 Change”). Both versions of the game draw on proven techniques for overcoming anxiety: identifying and correcting avoidance behaviors, developing a tolerance for uncertainty and practicing acceptance. Soteria VR leverages the heightened immersive experience of virtual reality technology, Oculus touch controls and an innovative sound system to enhance the sense of embodiment and emotional engagement with the game.

“We were inspired to create Soteria as an immersive and engaging supplement to traditional therapy and self-help books,” said Dr. Rusch. “Games let you embody physical and mental states and experiment within those states in a unique and impactful way. Soteria VR will add to the experience of the original game the affordances of virtual reality so that players can more deeply and fully inhabit the transition from anxious to confident states in the face of their fears.”

The iThrive team and Dr. Rusch are frequent collaborators on a range of projects that center on meaningful gameplay that supports personal transformation. In addition to their contributions to Soteria VR, the iThrive team also is working closely with leadership at Centerstone Research Institute — the Nashville-based research arm of Centerstone, the largest provider of behavioral health services in the country — to devise a strategy for bringing more digital games into service delivery.

For more information about iThrive Games, please visit http://ithrivegames.org. For more information about the Deep Games Laboratory, please visit https://deepgameslab.com. If you are interested in learning more about Stanford Brainstorm, visit www.stanfordbrainstorm.com.

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