Wonder if Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man ever needed couples therapy? What might a family therapist say about the sibling rivalry of the Super Mario Bros? It’s time to get serious about gaming, because some suggest that video games and psychotherapy fit together like a well-placed Tetris block.
Surveys suggest that between 95 and 97 percent of American teenagers have played video games at some point in the recent past, and most of them play games on a regular basis. Adolescents aren’t the only ones gaming, however. More than 50 percent of adults play video games, too, whether they’re launching Angry Birds on their phones or questing in multiplayer online universes like World of Warcraft.
“They’re a part of our patients’ lives,” says Mike Langlois, a clinical social worker in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of the eBook Reset: Video Games & Psychotherapy. “Anything that much of the population is doing is something that psychotherapists need to know about.”
Unlike the arcade games of the past, modern video games offer an immersive social experience that therapists can use to build relationships with young clients. Forget about the dusty old board games like checkers and Parcheesi! “If I’m doing play therapy with adolescents in the 21st century,” Langlois says, “I should be playing the games of adolescents in the 21st century.”
More and more, gaming consoles are making their way out of parents’ basements and into our offices. “As I’ve learned in my child and adolescent psychiatry practice, the focus should be not only on what kids play, but also, perhaps more so, on how they play,” writes psychiatrist T. Atilla Ceranoglu in an editorial for the Boston Globe. Ceranoglu’s research on the use of video games in psychotherapy suggests that by playing video games with their patients, psychotherapists can build relationships with their gamer clients. In the process, they can learn valuable information about frustration tolerance, creative problem-solving, competition, and collaboration.
Even if you don’t have an Xbox set up in your office, it’s important to be aware of and sensitive to gaming-related issues, says Langlois, who brands his clinical practice as “gamer-affirmative.” By talking to everyone from adolescents to active-duty military veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan about their gaming experiences, Langlois says he started to hear stories about how people used video game communities to get help when they were depressed or even suicidal. “It was very different than the media hype I was hearing about how video games are all addictive and cause isolation.”
Now researchers and practitioners are starting to catch on to the power-up potential of video games for clinical practice. Research studies have found that playing video games improves pain management during medical procedures, while some specially designed psychoeducational video games have been used to increase treatment adherence in managing chronic diseases, such as diabetes and sickle-cell anemia. Businesses such as San Diego–based SmartBrain Technologies and Atlanta-based Virtually Better are headed by psychologists to develop, test, and use special therapeutic video game programs for everything from brain injuries to AD/HD and panic disorder. Even major commercial entities like Nintendo’s Wii gaming system and Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect platform are marketing games to improve physical activity and mental coordination.
Meanwhile, if you want to improve your own gamer-practice competence, try video gaming yourself. “I don’t think you need to play every single game, but you do need to be willing to have the experience of playing a game and learning to play,” says Langlois. He’s started a class on social work and technology in which one session requires students to attend in the online environment of World of Warcraft. Some students new to the game environment (gamers might call them newbies or noobs) find themselves fumbling around and frustrated as they learn the intricacies of navigating a new world. “I tell them to pay attention to that, because that’s exactly how their patients feel. For them, life is as difficult to negotiate as learning how to navigate this video game is for you.”
Video Games: Review of General Psychology 14, no. 2 (June 2010): 141-46
Jared DeFife, PhD, is an Atlanta psychologist specializing in caring counseling to help passionate professionals overcome self-doubt, shame, and insecurity.