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The healing power of serious games

Whether one talks about serious games or action packed video games, according to cognitive scientist Daphne Bavelier all have powerful and positive effects on many different aspects of our brain. In this fast changing society mental health therapists are constantly searching for new ways to enhance cognitive development. What if games can make this large step towards behavioural change a bit smaller?

E-mental health

The Dutch mental healthcare (GGZ) is developing more and more online treatment and prevention programs, the so- called E-mental health. Increasing attention has been paid to the principles of ‘blended care’, where face-to-face therapies are combined with online services as for example online information and advice, self-tests and self-help programs. E-mental health reduces patients’ effort and even embarrassment. The correct mix between traditional therapy and e-mental health makes treatment user friendly, efficient, and (cost) effective. But how can gaming be of added value to blended care?

“Gaming can make a better world”

Following the revolutionary arguments of game-designer Jane McGonigal games aren’t a waste of our time; they can actually heal us. In games, people are able to tackle difficult challenges with more creativity, determination and optimism. Even if the gamer’s future doesn’t look that bright, games can help them suffering less and battle the “bad guys”. Games are able to support physical, mental, emotional and social resilience, four domains that positively influence post-traumatic growth. If you feel that you need more explanation or validation to actually believe the former, I would definitely recommend to watch the TED-talk The game that can give you 10 extra years of life”.

In this fashion, several reasons can be given to prefer (serious) games above the traditional e-mental health applications:

  1. Games prolong the effect of therapy while reducing face-to-face contact. The patients’ time-on-task is increased, which means that games provide the possibility to easily coach and motivate them for a long period of time.
  2. At the same time, games provide patients with immersive experiences that make them feel more involved in their online therapy.
  3. The patients’ learning behaviour is reinforced by direct and relevant feedback programmed in the game, with the advantage of being able to directly apply appropriate or positive behaviour to reality.
  4. Games have a social aspect and can therefore provide social resilience. By playing with others, patients are able to receive more strength from friends, family, peers and others.
  5. But most of all, games are fun! A game gives patients something to be “busy” with and distracts them from potential unpleasant thoughts.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Dutch mental health care organizations are increasingly incorporating serious games in blended care therapy. More and more therapists combine neurocognitive training with gaming elements aimed at children with poor executive functions, as is the case with ADHD, autism and psychosis. Games are fun, ensuring that children are highly motivated to play such games. In our game ‘KickAss’, developed for Coöperatie eLab Autisme, young people with autism are challenged to pick up daily recurring issues in a fun way. KickAss helps the youngsters to understand their response at challenges and offers them alternative behaviours they can practice in reality.

As both Bavelier and McGonigal remark, playing games also positively affect the emotional mind of adults. Even in crisis, the rational skills and agility can be trained in serious games. Games can be played everywhere and independently of time. But most important, they can be that small bright spot in the patient’s daily life.

Author: Michael Bas, &ranj team

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