Video Game Therapy

Well, what do you think? By the time it’s done, it’ll be a fully functional Nintendo controller. I went to Comic Con this last weekend and had the chance to play some really cool video games that haven’t come out yet. I guess that’s sort of what inspired me to finish this table. I’ve been thinking about video games a lot recently and realized that they’ve always been a really important part of my life. Some of my favorite memories involve playing video games with my brothers. Ya know… After school, hanging out, eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches, listening to Footloose on repeat while taking turns trying to defeat Ganon in Ocarina of Time. Good times. In psychology, video games are often studied from the perspective of: “How are they hurting us?” An easy example of this is, a lot of research went into exploring whether violent video games resulted in kids committing real-life violence. But what about about the opposite? Do video games help us? Well, just talk to your friends and you realize that…yeah! I mean, for a lot of people, video games bring joy, build friendships and communities, help us relieve stress, and help us escape from reality for a little bit. There’s so much evidence that, like other hobbies, video games can positively impact your mental health. So, what if we took that to the next level? If video games are good for your mental health, then what about video game therapy? It’s not as crazy as it sounds! Recently, psychologists and counselors have started using video games in therapy. That sounds awesome! So you just play video games and you can treat your anxiety or depression or any other issue, right? And the more that you play, the better you feel! Well, not exactly. Let me clarify a little bit. The video games themselves are not the therapy. Instead, they’re just a compliment to therapy. A tool. There’s still a trained professional in the room. They just happen to be beating you at Wii Bowling. So if it’s not the video games themselves that are treating the issue, why would mental health professionals turn to video games? Well think about it. Video games are becoming so much more relevant in daily life. 91% of kids between the ages of 2 and 17 have played video games. 97% of teenagers play video games for at least an hour a day. And 63% of all Americans play video games. And those numbers are only increasing as time goes by. I mean, video games are becoming more popular. They have e-sports on ESPN for crying out loud! So now I want you to imagine that you’re a new client. You walk into the therapist’s office and you’re expecting them to ask you to sit down, talk about all of your problems, and reveal your deepest secrets. It can be an awkward situation. And it’s even worse if you don’t want to be there in the first place. But if you walk in and you see all of these systems and your favorite games? Well then you’re interested and engaged, and you have something fun to talk about and play. And from the standpoint of the therapist, it’s great because you can very quickly build a connection with the client, or as we call it, a therapeutic rapport. It takes that awkward situation and turns it into a comfortable environment to open up in. Beyond building rapport, video games can also be useful in shaping different mental abilities. Think about all the skills that you use when you’re playing video games. Dealing with failure and frustration or learning the value of hard work and effort. Cooperating with others and engaging in friendly competition and rivalry. They might even help you empathize with the people that you’re playing with or the characters in the game. I mean, there are a lot of learning opportunities in video games themselves. So you can see how video games could be helpful for mental health issues like teaching social skills to kids on the Autism Spectrum or rebuilding relationships with estranged family members or even helping victims or perpetrators of bullying. But what would that look like? Well, a common technique used in therapy is
roleplay. Essentially, the therapist sets up a scenario and the client has to play it out as if it’s real. Depending on the willingness of the client, it can be really useful and revealing. Or extremely awkward and not helpful at all. But with video games, the roleplay can happen in-game. And the therapist has the ability to make real-time observations and give direct feedback to the client. And they can even manipulate the game or change the rules, so to speak, in order to put the client in a particular scenario, and then see how they behave. And actually, there are some video games that are specifically developed for therapeutic uses. I’m not going to go into those in detail, but if you want to play them yourself, just go to the description below. I put a whole bunch of links there. So let’s get to the real question that you’re
all asking. Does it actually work? Are video games actually helpful for things like depression or anxiety? Of course, like I said before, video games are not the end-all-be-all of therapy. There’s still someone there, guiding the therapeutic session. But I will focus on studies that specifically use video games as their primary focus of therapy. This stuff is still in its infancy, so there’s not a ton of research, but I’ll tell you what I know. One, for specific phobias such as fear of spiders, heights, flying, enclosed spaces, enclosed spaces, etc. Video games seem to be useful. However, early evidence shows that it may not be as long-lasting as traditional therapy. Second, for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Recently, it became popular to use virtual reality headsets for treatment. I mean, heck, even House of Cards has multiple episodes where they use VR. And that’s because VR has shown high effectiveness in treatment of PTSD, especially for accident and war-related PTSD. Three, for ADHD. There is very little evidence that shows that certain video games can help reduce inattention and hyperactivity. And finally, in the case of depression, developmental delays, and autism, there’s lot of anecdotal evidence, but no solid evidence and no controlled studies that show any effectiveness. So if you know of any out there, please let me know. Overall, there seems to be some evidence that video games successfully treat a handful of disorders. We just need more research! And there’s no denying that video games can be a useful tool in making therapy easier and more interesting. So what do you think? Would you try video game therapy? And if so, what game would you play? Let me know in the comments below. Thanks so much for watching. If you liked it, please like, subscribe, and share this with your gamer buds. And if you’re feeling generous, throw me a few bucks on Patreon. Until next time, I’m Micah. Think about it.

13 comments

  1. I guess this is the result of the younger generation growing up with video games in the mainstream as opposed to older generations who perhaps didn't play video games as a child.

  2. As an autistic person, I've found the main benefit of games has just been as an excuse to easily stay in touch with friends. I play Heroes of the Storm with people from high school, and it's provided me with a really straightforward way of socializing in an environment where a) we don't have to do a bunch of planning beforehand, and b) we have a built-in thing to talk about. I've never tried it in a therapeutic setting, but I remember as a child my therapist used to play a bunch of board games like Connect 4 with me, and that seems like basically the same premise.

  3. Thanks Micah, I am a psychologist and boy, I do use video games, ande definitely, such an effective complement…My favorite for anger control for kids AND ADULTS, is Breath from Sesame Street
    blessings!

  4. Journey for anxiety. Or something like that 🤔
    It strongly incentivizes constructive communication, but my words won't make it justice. Please play it with online co-op activated. It will make you empathize, strive with, and possibly cry for, another human :')

  5. developmental use: http://braininjuryknow.blogspot.com/2015/09/using-computer-for-therapy.html I had a severe stroke n ppl I cater to had other brain injuries. Medicare has very little therapy. I put together what I can.
    If u have FB, I put this video on my page. https://www.facebook.com/angela.ronson.9

  6. Hmm similar to the now gaining more populairity for kids.
    I had it. Pmt (maybe Dutch name)

    It is learning about yourself and all. And also some skills. Like my homework was breathing exercises (yes a 10 year old ADHD kid. Needed to lay flat on back for 10 minutes a day. Looking at the ceiling. Doing a breathing excersize. It was hell. I hate laying on my back. And hated doing it. Now I just meditate. But like I sit up. And regularly use sounds. Or I stare at candle. For 30 minutes.)

    I don't know if it.did anything.

  7. Wow! Why did I just know about this? I think I'm too late. Hahahahahahaha!

    Definitely, would try. I don't know if it might help but Life is Strange really did something great to me! It made me feel something again. Back when I don't know what it's like to have an emotion.

    Except for the decision-making part, though. My anxiety is at the worst every time I'm playing it.

  8. Used to use play therapy a lot but more board games. When I was doing work in the field in the early 2000's there obviously were video games but I used them more as a reward (positive reinforcement) for doing good throughout the time I was there (I did my work in the client's home)

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