With the Help of a Video Game, Virtual Help for Families of Veterans

Friday, November 11, 2011

Christian Campos is playing a different kind of video game.

Campos, 25, has been following the animated story of a U.S. Marine who has returned home to live with his parents after serving on the front lines.

The game, “Family of Heroes,” is an online interactive role-playing program aimed at helping loved ones communicate with veterans dealing with post-deployment problems, and ultimately, get them treatment.

He nodded his head and smiled knowingly at the screen. He said the similarities between the fictional Marine and his brother, Junior, 22, were uncanny.

Junior spent 10 months in Afghanistan and earlier this year returned to Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he is now. He’s come home to his family in Paterson, N.J., a few times since being back.

“Seeing my brother very anxious, seeing my brother with all those feelings of going back to war, because be feels more safe, he feels more normal, he feels he belongs there — is totally sad, is totally devastating to me as well as my parents," Christian said.

There are an estimated 34,000 veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars in the metropolitan area, and with the final withdrawal of troops from Iraq by the end of the year, that number is expected to increase. As many as two-thirds of combat veterans locally have mental health problems, including anxiety, depression, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the Veterans Administration.

(Photo: Courtesy of Kognito Interactive)

The military services, the V.A. and independent support groups offer a range of services for families, so they can get help for their loved ones, but many people don’t know where to start.

Ann Feder, a supervisor for mental health services for the regional V.A., hopes the new online program that Christian Campos is playing, called Family of Heroes, will find its way to other people like the Campos family.

“We already do face-to-face outreaches,” she said, “but this is the first time we’re doing a program for any family member, loved one, somebody who cares about the veteran online.”

"Family of Heroes" was produced by a New York City firm called Kognito, which has a $200,000 contract with the local V.A. It's too new to have much of a track record, but more rigorous study is in the works. 

V.A. officials said they don’t expect an interactive online program to take the place of traditional resources for families, such as help lines and support groups.
Psychologist Barbara Van Dahlen, who runs a volunteer program for veterans called Give an Hour, said the easy-to-access simulation is one more tool among several.

“Obviously, it’s not going to be the right method for every family,” Van Dahlen said. “But the goal is to create a variety of options, of opportunities to get information to families.”

"Family of Heroes" takes about an hour, and features three families with different challenges. Viewers watch a conversation between spouses or parents and returning veterans, and then replay it, taking the role of the loved one, and trying out different replies, until gently persuading the veteran to seek counseling help.

Christian Campos, taking the role of the virtual Marine’s mother, doesn’t quite get him all the way into therapy, but playing around just a little with the simulation, he gets him to accept the idea of possibly seeing someone. It’s a start.

Christian said he feels newly confident about broaching sensitive subjects with his brother, Junior, who’s returning soon for Thanksgiving: “Knowing how to handle a situation...that could save his life,” Christian said.

Christian Campos said his brother, Junior, was in several vehicles that were hit by roadside bombs, and he was shot in the head, but saved by his helmet.  

Speaking from North Carolina, Junior said coming back from Afghanistan took some adjustment  initially. He had some problems with anger, but not any more.

“I have no issues. I have no problems now,” he said. “I can control my temper now. I’m calm all the time.”

Junior’s looking forward to coming home for Thanksgiving. Christian, is also upbeat about the upcoming visit – but he also plans to spend some time with the “Family of Heroes” program, and go over it with his parents, just in case.


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Comments [8]

libia vargas from TORONTO CANADA

Te felicito de corazon, personas como tu demuestran q el ratico de paso por la vida hay q aprovecharlo al maximo y de esa manera haciendo algo por la familia y el resto de la sociedad ,importante su ingenio me llamo la atencion por que mi hermano menor trabajo para las tropas de contra guerrilla en colombia durante 12 anos y el sufre de malos comportamiento por la ira,se siente que si no esta haya metido en la guerra en ninigun otro lado siente vida tranquilo es traumatico para la familia pero alentador encontrar personas que queremos ayudarlos ,DIOS te bendiga por ese gran trabajo ,se que me serbira mucho para ayudar a mi hermano.

Dec. 04 2011 10:32 AM
Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth from SF Bay Area

I've written about using virtual worlds/healing for war torn youth/soldiers/PTSD such as Virtual Iraq on the site>> so am wondering if this is taking the socio-emotional/familial approach to engage at a community level for therapy in Health2.0 style. Looks intriguing, thank you for the heads up...Also just added it to yesterday's resource roundup for 11-11-11 Veteran's Day media/mktg deployment to benefit families of service members:

Nov. 12 2011 01:56 PM
Shane from New Jersey

I found the training online at It is free to access.

Nov. 12 2011 07:36 AM
Hank from ny

It's great to hear stories about the various ways lives can be reclaimed and re-acclimated to life after traumatic experiences. This is exactly the type of positive role videogames can and do have, a point very well argued by Jane McGonigal in Reality is Broken. The more tools we have to heal, the better our society can salve wounds.

Nov. 11 2011 11:11 AM
Linda from NYC

If you think this article is about video games, you've missed the point. Listen to the audio and hear the pain in the brothers voice. Many returning veterans are at risk and their families struggle with approaching them for help. This is one resource to do so. I personally applaud the VA for its innovative approach in reaching out to families of veterans before it is too late. Some veteran's are not safe just because they've returned.

Nov. 11 2011 11:04 AM
Maria from NYC

Thank you VA for not forgetting the families. This program sounds great and I can't wait to view it.

Nov. 11 2011 09:17 AM

More important than video game research is the instructional underpinning of Family of Heroes; role playing has been proven to be an effective learning tool, and by placing users in an authentic, simulated environment, Family of Heroes seems to be utilizing game concepts AND learning theories to engage users in exploring real scenarios. Blizzard nor Bethesda produce any learning-based games, so the comparison is not valid in any way.

Nov. 11 2011 09:17 AM

They're obviously trying to use tax dollars to do video game research and then pass the results on to private companies as a sort of backdoor stimulus but looking at those screenshots they need a lot of work if they're going to generate anything companies like Blizzard or Bethesda are going to be able to use.

Nov. 11 2011 12:51 AM

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