Could computer games actually be good for your child?
Lockdown has meant children and young people have been staying in and many have turned to computer games to entertain themselves and also to connect with friends. I had a number of parents of children I work with guiltily tell me at the start of lockdown that they had ‘caved in’ and allowed their child to play Fortnite and other similar games as a way of getting through lockdown.
I know that many parents worry about their children becoming addicted to computer games and about the many reported negative effects that computer games can have on children and young people. There are definitely warning signs of gaming addiction to look out for. There is lots of advice out there about how to implement parental controls in games and around establishing boundaries around game use. But you know all of that already, don't you? And you know it’s hard to keep those boundaries in place – especially when children have a device in their bedroom. You can’t monitor them 24/7 and you get nervous about what they are up to.
Benefits of gaming
But maybe there’s also a part of you that sees how much perseverance and skill and teamwork your child has to develop to do well in these games. Maybe you saw the letter in a UK newspaper back in June of this year from a 74-year old, Fortnite-playing grandpa who described how, when playing the game with his grandson and his friends, “I’ve come to interact with many of his friends, who are caring and friendly towards the grandpa among them. They never leave me to die, are quick to attend to me when injured and give patient advice. Their politeness, comradeship, team spirit, humour and creative thinking would astound their parents… It is a privilege to be counted among them. Believe me, this game has nothing to do with violence and everything to do with fun.”
I agree with Grandpa Fortnite. I’ve spent a lot of time during lockdown talking about computer games with my young clients, watching them play and playing with them. All the while, I’m learning so much about my clients; from how the character (or avatar) they choose to play in a game says so much about their personality and how they want to be seen by others, to how they interact with other players in the game. My experience is that, contrary to popular belief, playing games like Minecraft, Fortnite, Roblox and Animal Crossing can be positive social environments where children and adults alike can develop friendships, learn social and emotional skills and excel.
Gaming or avatar therapy
I’m not alone in this belief. There’s a growing number of therapists using what has become known as ‘gaming’ or ‘avatar’ therapy to engage their clients. For example, I use Minecraft as a therapeutic tool in online counselling with children and young people. Minecraft can be likened to lego or a sandtray – creative resources that would often be used by therapists in face-to-face therapy with children and young people. Minecraft offers a truly immersive online space to have counselling and, due to the limitations coronavirus has forced upon us and the impact on people’s mental health, having an engaging online space to provide counselling to children and young people right now is vital. Therapy using Minecraft, like other play therapies, can help children and young people struggling with all sorts of issues such as anxiety, depression, grief, bullying, parental separation and more.
How is Minecraft used in therapy?
If, for some reason, Minecraft has so far escaped your notice, here’s a quick guide for you: Minecraft was created in 2009 and is one of the world’s most popular computer games. In the game you can mine materials and build whatever you can think of; houses, cities, castles. You share the world with a number of animals and creatures. You can play it on your own or with other people. In survival mode, you need to work to find materials to build a safe home to protect you at night from creatures like zombies and skeletons and you need to make sure you have food to stay alive. In creative mode, you can’t die, and you can fly! And you already have all the materials in your inventory that you need to build whatever your imagination can come up with. A great thing about Minecraft is that it appeals to people of all ages and genders.
Minecraft has long been established as an excellent resource for education settings. Minecraft released an education edition in 2016 which is used in schools across the world for teaching a range of topics from maths and engineering to social and emotional skills. Now, increasingly, therapists are using Minecraft and other games as a way of engaging children and young people in therapy.
I love the flexibility that Minecraft gives me as a practitioner to create a world that suits each child’s individual needs. I can create a world that is absolutely free of scary creatures, that has all the resources they need to build and create without worrying about surviving or being killed. And I can make the world more challenging if that might suit them.
Using games in therapy
Using games in therapy has long been recognised as an effective way to engage children in counselling. In the office, I’ll often play board games with the young people I work with as a way of building a relationship and seeing how they react to winning or losing; maybe they’ll help me out if I get stuck, maybe they don’t know the rules and get embarrassed - you learn a lot about people through the way they play. And playing computer games with clients is no exception. In fact, I’ve found that the immersive nature of computer game landscapes such as a Minecraft world is often more powerful than face-to-face or other online counselling methods in creating a strong therapeutic relationship with a child, allowing us to more quickly get to the heart of what is going on for them.
I use a secure online video platform to talk with my clients whilst we play Minecraft. We can see and hear each other and can play together in Minecraft at the same time. Each of my clients has their own unique world which is theirs to do whatever they want to do in. We might build together, farm, go on an adventure, go swimming, find hidden caves… the opportunities are endless. As we play I learn about how the child responds to different situations, how they problem solve, how they collaborate, how they react to adversity and we can find ways together to overcome hurdles in the game and learn how that can translate to life outside of the game.
Coronavirus has drastically changed the world as we know it and many children and parents will be feeling concerned about spending time in close physical proximity to a counsellor in a small room. Online counselling removes that concern and enables great possibilities in terms of online play through computer games.
So, instead of feeling guilty about your child’s game playing, why not be curious about it? Ask them about their character or skin or avatar. Maybe even pick up the controls yourself and join in with a game (if they’ll let you!). Don’t worry about not knowing how to play, your child might delight in being the one with the know-how for a change and give you some tips.
And if you think your child might respond well to therapy using a computer game like Minecraft then why not search for a therapist who specialises in avatar therapy and enable your child to explore what is going on in their world through an online game that they know and love.
 ‘Fortnite with Grandpa’ in ‘The Daily Telegraph’, 6th June 2020
 Lewis Ellison et al ‘Minecraft, Teachers, Parents, and Learning: What They Need to Know and Understand’ School Community Journal, 2016, Vol. 26, No. 2, Available at http://www.adi.org/journal/2016fw/LewisEllisonEvansFall2016.pdf
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