Online gaming is the new therapist office
In the early For weeks of the pandemic, Monet Goldman tried different strategies to deal with stress. “I’ve exercised, I’ve meditated, I’ve done yoga,” said Goldman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Clara, California. But he didn’t feel better until he turned to a familiar pastime: video games. In the bright, immersive world of online gaming, Goldman found solace – and he started having fun again. When he and his colleagues struggled to virtually connect with customers, he wondered whether games could also help his patients.
Goldman began training other clinicians to use online games in their work, starting with Roblox, a platform with millions of games that is particularly popular in the US with children ages 5 to 12. In a Zoom session with two elementary school children, Goldman began by asking the children to name their favorite Roblox game. First of all, âit’s like radio silence. Everyone has their cameras off, âsays Goldman. Finally a boy mentioned Brookhaven, an RPG set in a busy city. Soon the children were enthusiastic about the playing field, their shyness was forgotten.
Like conventional play therapy, which uses toys to help patients express thoughts and feelings, online gaming provides another means of communication. For some people who are afraid of how they look or how they speak, gaming is an opportunity to discover “a voice in its various forms,” ââwhether through avatars, artwork, or other digital creations, Goldman says. He noticed that children who struggled with personal therapy came to life and developed more confidence in a virtual environment. âThat was the biggest advantage,â he says. Today Goldman provides a mix of play and talk therapy to children, adolescents and adults.
While the repurposing of video games for therapeutic purposes is not new, clinicians’ interest in the format grew significantly after the pandemic sparked an abrupt move to telemedicine. “Lots of therapists freaked out,” says JosuÃ© Cardona, founder of Geek Therapy, a nonprofit that advocates the use of video games and other popular media. As of December 2019, the Geek Therapy Facebook group had just under 1,000 members, according to Cardona; now there are more than 5,400. Clinicians use online games in different ways, from participating in customers on platforms like Roblox or Minecraft to playing patients on their own for a specific therapeutic purpose.
How gaming can help
“Video games have this way of getting and holding attention,” which can be the first step in helping patients control stressful thoughts, says Aimee Daramus, a clinical psychologist and author of Understand bipolar disorder. In her work with adults with chronic mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, and schizophrenia, Daramus uses video games as a bridge to other coping strategies. If someone is overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts during a session, playing a video game for a few moments can help reduce anxiety. At this point, Daramus explains, a strategy like mindful awareness becomes much more accessible to the patient.
Some research suggests that video games can be as effective – and potentially more effective – as other mental health interventions, especially for anxiety. A 2017 study published in Prevention science found that the game MindLight was as effective as a cognitive behavioral therapy program in reducing anxiety in children. In another study, prescribing video games reduced patients’ anxiety more than adding a second drug to their treatment.