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Video Games are the Therapy We Have Been Waiting For

He’s been hit with bullets, survived an IED blast, and has watched countless comrades get injured or killed in battle.  When it came time for the transition back to civilian life, this former solider* had a new battle to face: the onset of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Looking for something to take the edge off and help him through the recovery process, he turned to video games to overcome the PTSD and adapt back into civilian life once more.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans, 11-20% of Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom Veterans have PTSD, and according to the National Institute of Health, 26.2% of US citizens between the ages of 18 and older “suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in a given year”. To many of those people, traditional therapies and medications are not enough to enter a recovery stage. In more recent years, mental health experts have been turning to the power of video games to help their patients not only reach a recovery stage, but also succeed in areas in life that they previously had a hard time dealing or coping with.

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It’s not just adults that are reaping the benefits of this new therapeutic tool, either. Children with Autism now have their own Minecraft server where they can interact in a PVP free and monitored server, while also participating in team builds and creating their own worlds.Teens are using Role Playing Games (RPG) to adapt to social situations and communicate effectively, and even the older population is getting in on this type of therapy using games aimed towards problem solving and memory retention to prevent Alzheimer’s.

Many psychological experts have studied the effects that games have had on someone in therapy.  According to an article in Molecular Psychology, a controlled group that played a platform game (in this case Super Mario Brothers) for 30 minutes a day for 2 consecutive months, has a “significant gray matter (GM) increase in right hippocampal formation (HC), right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC), and bilateral cerebellum in the training group.” In layman’s terms: playing video games for a set amount of time over a consecutive period has helped improve memorization skills, motor skills, and sensory skills, all important to our daily lives and well-being.

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Don’t believe the study? Then look at your own gaming habits. Excluding the times we all rage quit when we die over and over again or some fool is causing a scene in a multi-player lobby, how do you typically feel after a gaming session? Are you relaxed? Can you find yourself ready to take on whatever the day has to throw at you? Or are you particularly inspired to go do something creative (yes, that counts!)?

It’s also the reason why many people become attached to certain games. The soldier mentioned in the beginning has found himself attached to the Assassin’s Creed franchise because it helped him learn his love of history and has some mild fighting scenes. Some people get entwined in an RPG storyline because of how they connect with a certain character, and they can “transport” themselves into that role and take on the game as if they were personally there (in essence, helping out communication and social interactions).

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So are we all supposed to find a release in the games in our shelves? The opportunity is there, since many developers and psychologists are working together to create games specifically used for therapeutic situations.

Recently a game specifically intended for a enhancement to therapy has made its way on the gaming scene. SPARX, or Smart. Positive. Action. Realistic. X-factor, is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) video game aimed towards young adults with mild to moderate depression, anxiety, and stress to help them learn how to resolve problems and issues they may be facing by themselves. Just like many other games, SPARX is a 3D fantasy-based game where you can customize your own avatar and start a journey with a guide (who explains the game and how it can help) through seven realms in which the player has to complete quests. Besides meeting other characters, solving problems, and finishing given tasks, players challenge GNATS, or Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts to learn how to think more positively than before. In a study of 187 teenage patients playing SPARX, 43.7 percent of the group had a decrease in their symptoms.

In an age that traditional therapies and medications are becoming too expensive and the stigma of a mental illness still looms overhead, video games can be a saving grace to someone who is looking for the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

 

*Note: Solider’s name has been withheld for privacy reasons.

 



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