Gaming the Brain: An Exploration of Video Games in Therapy

Ferguson, Quinn, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Earle, Joshua, Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

In psychological treatment there is always room for improvement. There is no cast for a broken mind, or any completely effective way to deal with psychological issues. Therefore, any new approach that can improve treatment is well needed. On the other hand, the video game is a largely untapped platform capable of producing significant emotional effects that could be applied in therapeutic contexts. I aim to address these two topics and answer the questions: how can video games be used to enhance emotional therapy, and what would such a game look like? To narrow the scope of this goal, the paper focuses on two specific therapy cases: phobia patients and children. Some scholars have already recognized the potential of video games in these cases and have begun to study their ability to achieve a therapeutic effect. However, to my knowledge none have used a game made specifically for therapy. Therefore my paper aims to collect the best strategies implemented so far and combine them to determine what an optimal therapeutic video game would have to achieve. To do this, the paper studies four cases of video games successfully achieving therapeutic effects; two scholarly studies and two commercial video games. For each case, the paper dissects the strategies used to determine which are most effective. The studies conclude that these strategies are distraction, immersion, autonomy, customizability, and emotional expression. Distraction is an element of fun that diverts away some of the stress of treatment. Immersion helps players get lost in the game increasing its ability to affect an emotional response. Autonomy helps players feel more in control of their treatment, further easing stress. Customization allows treatment to be tailored exactly to patient needs. Finally, emotional expression allows release for patients and could give therapists more insight on their emotional state. Applying the most relevant strategies to a game for phobias would look like a leveled game where each level the patient has to interact with the feared object in some challenging way. Each level would be created by the patient and therapist together to allow for autonomy and customization. For children, the game would have to be modeled after play therapy, allowing for open-ended interaction. Aspects like decorating, building, and character interaction could allow for such emotional expression. Further research is needed to confirm these findings.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Phobias, Therapy, Video Games
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