While there is very limited information on the intersection of games and psychotherapy—studies are extremely few and far between, and by some accounts, only a single “game” broaches the subject—one child psychiatrist is using videogames in a different way; as an icebreaker.
Dr. T. Atilla Ceranoglu is an instructor at Harvard Medical School and a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in addition to running his own practice. In a session at Games for Health, Dr. Ceranoglu detailed how he makes use of videogames.
Inspired by a quote from Freud, “There is little that gives children greater pleasure than when a grown-up lets himself down to their level, renounces his oppressive superiority and plays with them as an equal,” the doctor outfitted his office with videogames. The use of games permits doctor and patient to build a therapeutic relationship, allows Ceranoglu to evaluate cognitive skills and helps to emphasize what the child might be feeling in real-life.
Ceranoglu shared the story of a 14-year old boy, who had been having troubles with his family. On the third office visit, the boy, who hadn’t said much to the doctor up until then, joined Ceranoglu for some cooperative play in a Lord of the Rings title. The boy started commenting on the gaming ability of the doctor, which began to promote communication between the two.
Eventually the boy relayed how he played games at a friend’s house, because he disliked his home environment. The two played a game of baseball, which the foreign-born doctor was not very good at, and the boy won handily. A FIFA match followed (a game which Ceranoglu excels at). The boy was getting creamed, so he started reacting in-game, getting red cards, which lead to his players being tossed from the game. In time, the boy took to practicing the game at home before finally returning to beat the doctor. This pleased Ceranoglu because the boy took something from the office home with him.
Further into treatment, the boy confided to Ceranoglu that he wished he had a brother to play games with, which led to a conversation in which the boy told the doctor about his brother dying some years earlier. The parents of the boy had never told Ceranoglu about this tragedy; they had chosen to ignore the incident as if it never happened. The boy then admitted to visiting his brother’s grave quite often, sometimes every day. From there Ceranoglu was able to further break down the walls and to administer assistance to the boy. He said that videogames made all this possible.
As far as what attributes games used in this manner should posses, Ceranoglu recommended that any games used should be brief and repeatable, contain many levels, feature an easy learning curve and portray various types of avatars. Additionally, games should contain stories relevant to a child’s conflict, should be able to be saved at any point (to avoid lengthy play sessions) and feature flexible multiplayer modes plus user-made content.
Dr. Ceranoglu said he discusses the role of games in treatment with parents beforehand, to avoid catcalls like “I’m not paying you $XX an hour to play games.” He reports that the reception of his techniques from other therapists has been “quite good.”