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Play therapy prescribes video games to combat anxiety

Gris is the new black

As someone with bipolar, I have often wondered why sinking several hours into something soothing such as Shovel Knight does so much for my soul. However I recently read that Geek Therapy, a non-profit advocating the use of video games for wellness, promote using world-building games such as Minecraft, Roblox, Animal Crossing, and Fortnite to help people deal with mental health issues. While play therapy has long promoted the therapeutic powers of escapism to imaginary worlds, it is more recently that thought has gone into how these online experiences can be used to combat my, I mean someone's, anxiety and depression.

In a recent interview with Marketplace, Josué Cardona, the president of the Association For Play Therapy, spoke about how these popular video games can help with talking about problems.

"They want to keep coming because you're willing to not only talk to them about Minecraft, but also play the game in session. It's definitely opened a lot of doors for a lot of families to come into the mental health space."

Family therapist Monet Goldman says he had a similar experience. Speaking to Wired in a feature last month, he explained how introducing Roblox into a therapy session transformed "radio silence" into "forgotten shyness" as clients led each other around the game. This is apparent to introverts, such as myself, who have suddenly exploded into a flurry of conversation at the mere mention of their adored entertainment.

Openness is not the only benefit. The 2018 study, Zombies Vs Anxiety, found that in a group of more than 50 anxious participants, two to three hours a week of game time showed a larger reduction in anxiety than taking a second prescription medication. Clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus told Wired she "prescribes" games which focus on mental health such as Sea Of Solitude, Gris, and Night In The Woods, to practice coping techniques between sessions in her talks with Wired.

Gaming distracts from the undesired and makes coping strategies more meaningful. Cardona says he inspires a sense of achievement in young people by letting them "teach" him about the games. "Sometimes you just pretend that you don't know what you're doing. - They love to teach you and think that they know more than you." He also says he uses open world games to help clients address their concerns with decision making in a safe space.

Daramus also links gaming activity to her specific treatment goals. She gives the example of playing Animal Crossing and reflecting with clients on how befriending villagers honed their social skills, or waiting to hook a rare fish built their distress tolerance. While spending hours upon days waiting for that final drop is indeed distressing, there are even benefits when it pushes to the point of frustration.

Kim Wheeler Poitevien is a clinical social worker who uses games to help young people build patience and tolerance. She told Wired that when games glitch, lag, kick players out or simply when someone is losing, it helps players to better deal with their "frustration tolerance".

Further advantages to gaming include increases in mindfulness. Daramus says "video games have that way of grabbing attention and keeping it." She uses video games to interrupt someone overwhelmed by intrusive thoughts, to help reduce anxiety and ultimately to develop strategies for mental well-being such as mindful awareness. So it would seem a little bit of what you like is good for you.

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iOS, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch


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Night in the Woods

PS4, PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch

Sea of Solitude

PS4, Xbox One, PC

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About the Author

Georgina Young