Video games have come a long way from their origins as a niche hobby. Today, the video game industry rivals Hollywood in size and reaches audiences across generations, in fact there are 3.1 billion of us!
As video games grow more advanced, complex, and social, researchers are uncovering their vast potential beyond just entertainment. An emerging field of study focused on video games for therapy illustrates one such exciting possibility.
From alleviating anxiety to improving cognitive skills, video games are increasingly recognized as powerful therapeutic tools and complements to traditional counseling. For individuals struggling with social anxiety, ADHD, PTSD, chronic pain, and other mental health conditions, immersive and distracting gameplay can provide measurable symptom relief where other options fall short.
Let’s explore the key ways video games are transforming modern therapy.
Pain and Anxiety Reduction
By absorbing attention, games can minimise patients’ experience of pain and anxiety during medical procedures. In a notable study, adolescents undergoing cancer treatment reported significantly less pain while playing a virtual reality (VR) game than without it. These immersive VR environments provided effective distraction from discomfort.
Similar video game distraction techniques also reduced anxiety for children receiving anesthesia injections in trials. The enjoyment of playing minimized fear and stress before surgery. Beyond acute scenarios, chronically pained or anxious individuals can also benefit from relaxing gameplay for symptom management.
Social Skill Development
Multiplayer video games present opportunities to practice social interaction without real-world consequences. For those with conditions like autism or social anxiety disorders, games allow social skill development and relationship building within a comfortable space. Players can experiment expressing themselves through avatars before applying skills offline.
Communication within team games also nurtures collaboration, empathy, and leadership abilities. Again the virtual environment provides training wheels for practicing being social.
Research demonstrates certain video games can actively strengthen vital cognitive and emotional regulation skills like attention, memory, processing speed, self-control and more. Action games demanding quick reactions and decisions especially improve flexible thinking.
Some therapists assign customized neurocognitive games to complement treatment of ADHD, trauma, addictions, and other conditions requiring mental strengthening. The reward of scoring points and progressing gameplay rewires neural pathways over time more than worksheets.
Patients build confidence as cognitive abilities improve through fun challenges.
Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy
VR allows clients to safely encounter simulations of experiences provoking anxiety and trauma symptoms. This exposure therapy technique lets patients confront fears or traumatic memories within the controlled VR environment. As clients develop mastery facing simulations, associated distress and avoidance diminishes in real world situations.
VR exposure therapy has successfully treated combat veterans, sexual assault survivors, and individuals with phobias. Games simulating warzones, public speaking, planes, or spiders immerse clients in photorealistic exposure environments from a therapist’s office.
Repeated VR experiences neutrally integrate traumatic memories and desensitise triggers.
For some individuals simply coping with learning disabilities, depression, or stress, gameplay itself with no specialised design elicits mental health benefits. A metastudy on games for emotional health noted reductions in stress and negative mood after short bouts of gameplay. Multiplayer experiences especially foster social fulfilment, engagement, and belonging.
Of course, excessive play brings its own risks. But used judiciously alongside other interventions, enjoyed video games boost mood, reduce isolation, and give restless minds productive activity.
Therapists increasingly value appropriate gaming’s wellbeing upside.
Implementing Video Games into Therapy
While research continues elucidating gaming’s therapeutic effects, many counsellors already utilise video games to enrich treatment. Integrating gameplay requires selecting appropriate games catering to specific client needs and counseling goals.
Variables like content, mechanics, length of play and social aspects must suit the individual.
Once relevant games get identified, therapists can assign independent play, participate together during sessions, or discuss content metaphorically. Joining the virtual world together strengthens rapport. Debriefing about gameplay afterward reinforces takeaways.
When thoughtfully implemented, the interactive medium engages where worksheets fall short.
Moving forward, advances enabling therapists to actually monitor biofeedback and emotions during play will further optimize results. But already, the evidence clearly indicates video games’ efficacy as therapy tools.
Their flexible and immersive nature empowers individuals to build skills, manage symptoms, and nurture wellbeing through motivation and play.