Therapeutic uses for console and other computer games

Far from being a pastime for geeks, games can have therapeutic benefits, says Professor Mark Griffiths

How technology is changing social care: a special report

People may be surprised to learn that there are many medical and therapeutic benefits of gaming, including the more active varieties found on Wii and Xbox systems.

Their non-reliance on passive, repetitive movements gives them an advantage over traditional physiotherapy or occupational therapy methods for disabled children. Such is the engrossing nature of these games, there is evidence that many terminally-ill children who play with them need to take fewer painkillers.

Computer games have also been used to help develop a range of skills including social, spatial ability, mathematical and problem-solving in children and adolescents with severe disabilities or developmental problems such as autism. However, it must be noted that there has been no long-term follow-up and it is unclear whether patients eventually tire of such games.

Biofeedback games (those where a joystick or equivalent responds according to whether the user is using “faster brainwaves” or “slower brainwaves”) have been tested on young offenders with impulsive and attentional difficulties.

They have been proven to help those with attention deficit disorders control what are normally involuntary body functions such as heart rate. With enough training, children saw improvements in grades, sociability and organisational skills.

Professor Mark Griffiths is director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University


by Judy Cooper


In 2009 researchers at the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry found that playing the simple game Tetris (where differently shaped groups of falling squares have to be placed to make a complete wall) significantly reduced the number of flashbacks for those with post-traumatic stress syndrome. The authors concluded that non-invasive, cognitive interventions meant the brain was less able to produce the image needed for the flashback.

Carespace user: CB  “Some of these repetitive type games can calm some anxious moments. I use Bejeweled on my iPod for the same effect. Escapism isn’t always a bad thing.”

Wii, Playstation 2 and Xbox

Rather than just shifting a joystick, these modern consoles encourage movement and interactivity which opens up possibilities for therapeutic value. In 2008, a case study by Northampton University found that, because users were participating rather than just observing, there was more engagement in learning.

The range of games allows cognitive development (such as in Big Brain Academy) as well as physical development (such as in Wii sports). Users also reported reduced stress. However, the authors noted that games such as Wii Fit commented on weight and fitness which could have a negative impact on some. There were also fears over becoming addicted to games.

Carespace user: Alladultsarepapertigers  “I used to run a drop-in centre for adults with learning difficulties who wouldn’t engage with traditional services. This often meant people, particularly the younger ones, would come with a developed mistrust of professionals.

“We needed to find a way for people to talk to us in an environment that enabled them to keep a sense of control and power. So we bought an Xbox.

“By the end of a two-player game of football we found more often than not that other subjects could be introduced and certainly afterwards conversation was generally much easier to engage in.”

Simulation games

The Sims (EA Games) are internationally popular simulation games that ask users to “play God” for all members of a family they create. This might include working out what extra skills parents need to gain a promotion at work or find a job. Characters can have children, foster or adopt but, if they don’t look after their children, a social worker will appear on their doorstep.

Carespace user: Bongo “I am a foster carer and have found The Sims a great tool with my children. Playing it brings up all sorts of discussion from fire safety, to budgeting to the regular scenario of The Sim social worker taking the children away when the parents don’t look after them. I think the social worker scenario gets the point across about how you can love a child but not be able to meet its needs better than any book or explanation. It’s an immensely helpful tool.”

It’s not the medium but playing the game that counts

Carespace User: Mr P “Social work has been slow to exploit the creativity and fantasy that online games can provide. But it can equally apply to board games. The reality to my mind is not the medium, but the skill of the practitioner in creating a safe environment in which to learn and reflect. It can be over a chess board, a game of risk, Monopoly or a similar game on Nintendo DS or Wii.”

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