Recently I ordered a copy of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which I plan to try this week. As I have mentioned in a previous post, I am not easily interested by first-person shooters, but as a gamer-affirmative therapist I can’t let my low interest get in the way of educating myself.
I once calculated that by a conservative estimate I had played approximately 27,000 games of Uno in my decade working in a public school as a clinical social worker. I drove around with a ton of board games and a sand tray as well. I had learned the value of play therapy at the first placement I ever had as an intern, from Winnicott’s squiggle game to the infamous Talking, Feeling, Doing Game. This is all a roundabout way of establishing my “street cred” for valuing play therapy.
Back then, I would go home from work, and many times play Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the Nintendo 64. My roommate at the time liked to hang out with me while I played and we chatted about life, education (he was a teacher) and politics. He also liked to imitate the fairy guide in the game, and would often cry out, “Listen!” and offer a couple of tips.
In all those years, it never occurred to me that I could have played those games at school if I’d had an office (and some years I did) or that there was a disconnect between what I was doing with the students (card playing) and what they were talking about (Nintendo, XBox, Playstation.) I could hold a conversation with them about these things because I played them in my spare time, but the idea of playing them with my students didn’t register as, well, therapeutic.
I am not alone in this. Many if not most play therapists are not inclined to play video games with their patients, and it is time to rethink this. When 97% of the boys and 94% of the girls we work with play video games, it is no longer an outlier. But there are a few fallacies which I think get in the way of play therapists integrating play therapy into the 21st century.
One I hear frequently is that video games don’t require imagination, or offer projections to explore. But I think this is contempt prior to investigation for the most part. The proliferation of video games is itself the best evidence that there is imagination going into each generation of games, which are produced by imaginative people who must have been able to develop their imagination in part through video games. And we don’t start each session making our children build their own dolls and dollhouse from scratch. We use available tools that do to an extent always structure and limit the imagination. For example, why does the dollhouse have a pointy roof and two floors? This is limiting, and in fact didn’t represent 90% of the urban population I worked with at all. And few play therapists would avoid using Elmo puppets on the grounds that it limits the imagination of the child, even though Elmo is clearly an icon of popular culture.
In fact, play has often had its inception in the popular culture of the time. We may take chess for granted now, but when it came into being it was a reflection of a medieval monarchy, with kings, queens, and bishops. Yet play therapists often fall prey to nostalgia, if not luddism, and maintain that there are certain games and play that are relational and therapeutic, and others, usually the modern ones, are not.
This brings me to what I suspect is another reason we resist using video games in play therapy, which is the therapist’s fear of being incompetent or failing at the unfamiliar. Years of training in a traditional educational model have taught us to silo down in our area of “expertise” as soon as we can. We “major” in psychology or social work, go to graduate school for advanced specialization, and basically get to a point where we can work in a routine and structured environment. For years we get in the habit of certain forms of play therapy: Candy Land, Chutes and Ladders, cards, chess, dollhouses and telephones. These are easy and portable, but more importantly perhaps, we know how to play them, so we can not be “distracted” by the game, or lose by design if we want to build the kids self-esteem, and otherwise feel in control of the play situation.
It’s time we work through this resistance. People can and do have conversations while they play video games, and video games are in themselves social media. There are plenty of metaphors to explore in and after video gameplay. Angry Birds is rife with themes of anger, different abilities, and protecting the innocent and defenseless. Call of Duty can give rise to expression of competition, drives, and the hunger for destruction or cooperation. And a recent (to me) favorite, Demon Souls, is a tone poem on isolation, yearning to connect, and persistence in the face of despair.
I’m sure I’ll get comments arguing that video games are inherently violent as well. To which I would respond, just like Battleship and the card game War are inherently violent. We have become insulated to the violence in them, and it may not have the graphic sophistication of video games. But the next time you play Battleship ask yourself what you think happened to all the people on the battleships that sunk? The game doesn’t come with little lifeboats, you’re drowning people. Play therapy does not avoid violence in its expression.
Virginia Axline, one of the founders of modern play therapy, had 8 guiding principles for play therapists:
- The therapist must develop a warm, friendly relationship with the child, in which good rapport is established as soon as possible.
- The therapist accepts the child exactly as he is.
- The therapist establishes a feeling of permissiveness in the relationship so that the child feels free to express his feelings completely.
- The therapist is alert to recognise the feelings the child is expressing and reflects those feelings back to him in such a manner that he gains insight into his behaviour.
- The therapist maintains a deep respect for the child’s ability to resolve his own problems if given an opportunity to do so. The responsibility to make choices and to institute changes is the child’s.
- The therapist does not attempt to direct the child’s actions or conversation in any manner. The child leads the way; the therapist follows.
- The therapist does not attempt to hurry the therapy along. It is a gradual process and is recognised as such by the therapist.
- The therapist establishes only those limitations that are necessary to anchor the therapy to the world of reality and to make the child aware of his responsibility in the relationship.
Nowhere in there does it say, the therapist sticks with the tried and true games s/he grew up with. To my colleagues who are ready to decry the death of the imagination and lesser play of video games, I think Axline said it best: “The child leads the way: the therapist follows.”
Following in the 21st century means having Gameboys and Playstations in our repertoire. If we don’t keep learning and using technology in our play therapy, we may find ourselves in a state of unplanned obsolesence. Am I saying we should stop playing Jenga and Uno? No. But if our patients are looking for video games amongst the chess sets and dollhouses, perhaps they are telling us something we need to pay attention to. Just because we don’t know how to play a game doesn’t exempt us from learning it. And what a gift it can be for an adolescent to experience themselves as more competent and talented by an adult! So many of them come to us having been labeled as “failed learners,” and we have the potential to help them experience themselves as successful teachers, of us.
Those of us working in agencies and schools need to resist the temptation whenever possible to use the excuse of needing to be mobile or budgetary constraints. Video games are now as portable as a Nintendo DS PSVita or Smartphone. And the price of a video game system is not so prohibitive as to be a given. The real reason we often don’t advocate for video games at the agency or school is our own bias that they are somehow less valuable as therapeutic play media.
I anticipate that this will meet with resounding criticisms from the “play-is-going-to-hell-in-a-hand-basket” crowd, but I’m really interested in hearing from colleagues who have managed to successfully integrate video games into their play therapy. What are your success stories? What have been some challenges you’ve had to overcome? Do you schedule online play sessions? How do you manage the noise in an office suite? I’m really interested in your experiences.