Technologic breakthroughs in the 21st century have touched nearly every process and augmented basic human behaviors and interactions. Technology and internet use is now ingrained in basic daily functions. This shift creates both problems and opportunities when counseling individuals especially beholden to their smartphone or the latest app, particularly children and adolescents. But there’s no age restriction on technology use, and mental health professionals are increasingly seeing all types of clients discuss online use and how it may affect their well-being.
Technology has been thought of as a detractor to healthy living in some respects, but there is potential for it to be leveraged by mental health counselors in emerging ways to engage with clients. Gamification is one emerging trend that counselors can experiment with to reach tech-savvy clients. Now often deployed by companies in the form of training programs on subjects like workplace regulations, gamification is the application of game structures (points, motor skills, competition) to an otherwise routine process in working or personal life, usually realized in the form of a computer game or a relatable medium.
Gamification, as an enhancement to counseling, is only really starting to gain a hold in mental health counseling, so counselors must be exceptionally careful when using such methods.
The history and role of gamification
Game theory has been present in counseling methodology for some time. A guide to using games in counseling was published by Personnel and Guidance Journal in 1975. Play therapy, as it can be applied in child counseling, offers a real glimpse into a child’s state of mind. When disarmed during play, children are unencumbered by normal pressures and allowed to freely express themselves. When this enthusiasm is directed toward a game (either a board game, one without props or the virtual kind seen today), mental health professionals can observe interactions and behaviors in different contexts, which might be able to help improve their overall understanding of a client.
The conditions of the game — its rules and motivations — may be able to produce reactions that can be analyzed in context of treatment. Playing games might also have a therapeutic calming effect or skills teaching element (depending on the setting):
- Consider students placed on a team, and each is given a model to reconstruct with a prize promised for the fastest and most accurately built. Children must then learn to cooperate, as well as focus on the details.
However, children are now as likely to be playing online as they are outside. According to an American Psychological Association (APA) article published in American Psychologist titled “The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” 97 percent of American youth played one hour of video games a day in 2014. The wide breadth of video game use could be considered by counselors as a potential opening to engage with clients.
The potential of video games for mental health
Video games have gotten something of a bad rap in media, and though research on violent games does exist, researchers are beginning to focus on the opportunity for developing and using video games specifically to address mental health needs. The authors of the American Psychologist article who analyzed video game benefits asserted that they had “become particularly inspired by the potential that