Friday, January 12, 2007

Video Games as Therapy

Today I am posting an article I wrote last year. It is copyrighted material, but as I originally wrote it to try to help other individuals who live with chronic pain, it would be worth publishing here even if it reachs only one person who might benefit from it.

Video games are considered a 'niche' interest and often it is only through chance that adults' lives intersect with this media when a child asks for help with a game. It was only when I began to write game guides myself that I began to realise how many adults had begun to use video games as a form of therapy, sometimes without even being aware of the fact.

Here is my article:

Effects of Revolution in Technology

As human life expectancy is extended and as more treatments are found for diseases and conditions that formerly would have been fatal, the population increases and the number of individuals with disabilities and chronic conditions increases. The so-called 'baby boomers' now are in their sixth decade and although many may find themselves physically impaired, their minds and enthusiasm for life remain powerful.

The 'Age of Technology' is at its zenith. In terms of the entertainment industry, it has reached a stage where computers and game consoles no longer are prohibitively expensive and no longer require extensive expertise to operate. Computers and games are accessible to any one, from toddlers to individuals in their '90s.

Video games have existed for decades now, but in the past few years, a revolution has taken place in technological terms, providing graphics that are extremely realistic, detailed games that represent the results of decades of creativity and labour and a new approach and philosophy where the entire medium is concerned. No longer are games limited to the 'slash and hack' genre. Entire universes populated by three-dimensional characters with detailed personalities and histories have been created and exploited by new technology that builds on old stories and popular games from the past. The fact that computers now are the rule rather than the exception in every household, coupled with fairly inexpensive sophisticated hand-held devices means that video games no longer are restricted to arcades and now are accessible to every one.

The fact that video games can be played from the comfort of one's own home is only one element that makes them more attractive to individuals in every age bracket. 'Games' now can define anything from a traditional platform combat game to realistic sports games as diverse as football and fishing to new multi-dimensional activity games like Nintendo's 'Brain Game' and 'Brain Academy.' Beyond that, there are educational games that teach languages and the ability to play musical instruments. Games now basically embrace almost every aspect of human (and animal) life.

If you are a child or adult who suffers from a long-term disability or condition restricting your physical freedom or decreasing the general quality of your life, you may be interested in a form of therapy that works for people with conditions as diverse as chronic pain, cancer, kidney failure, obesity, anxiety and insomnia. I call it 'game therapy'.

Diversity in Games

Some games may be more therapeutic than others but much will depend upon the individual's own personality, hobbies and taste. Whatever game the player chooses, the very act of taking an 'intermission' from life in order to play a game probably is a positive one.

In the same way that ritual or the preparation of a 'sacred space' creates a distance between an individual and ordinary anxieties and concerns, switching on a video game has the same effect. It gives an individual a 'breathing space' and forces him/her to focus on issues and concerns that are completely different from daily ordinary concerns. The universe that is created and managed in a game basically is self-sufficient. The individual need not bring anything to it nor take anything away from it afterwards. Being able to save a game allows the player to resume ordinary life without being forced to take game issues with him/her and to keep the two realities separate.

For some individuals, traditional action/adventure platform games may be out of the question, as they require a fair amount of physical energy. A physical condition such as arthritis or carpal tunnel may affect the ability of a player to operate game controls at the speed required to succeed in a game of this sort.

Games that create a state of excitement that increases the heart rate radically (such as war simulation games) may not be advisable for any one with high blood pressure or a heart condition. It may surprise some individuals, however, to discover that this sort of game represents only one small segment of the gaming universe.

Simulation games for sports and other physical activities may appeal to many people and will not involve the same physical 'risks' that a thriller game may present to those with a physical condition that limits an 'adrenaline rush'. An ardent fisherman may enjoy a fishing simulation game. People who love football or baseball can play simulation games wherein they actually are able to take charge of professional teams. In some cases, the characters in the game are actual players. People who love cars and racing can choose from a multitude of racing games. There are skateboarding games like the Tony Hawk series for those who may not be able to balance on a skateboard in reality for whatever reason but who would love to experience the sport.

The appeal of these games is vicarious enjoyment of an activity that the player may or may not be able to experience in real life. They do require energy and the physical ability to manipulate game controllers. They tend to be very exciting, so would be recommended simply for 'escape' rather than relaxation. Usually these games do not involve the player in any long-term project. For some one with a physical disability or chronic condition who is searching for long-term therapeutic value, there is a genre that is far better suited to individuals of all ages.

This is the 'Role-Playing Simulation Game'. A Role-Playing Simulation Game usually creates a detailed and complete universe in which the player must assume a role and then proceed to live a fairly realistic life on a daily basis. 'Realistic' in this respect is defined by the specific nature of the universe in which the player finds himself/herself. This adds another dimension to one's enjoyment of the game, as a player who always has dreamed of a landscape populated by mythological creatures like unicorns may be able to find a world where unicorns are more common than horses. The player who always dreamed of becoming a knight can do so by undergoing the training and trials required in a world where knighthood is a viable career. In like manner, a fisherman who always fancied the idea of catching the rare 'prehistoric' coelacanth will have an opportunity to do that.

How to Improve 'Real' Life using RPS Games

For people who never played a role-playing simulation game or any other console or computer game, any mention of video games may conjure up a vision of frenetic action and violence. In actuality, games like 'Harvest Moon', 'Animal Crossing' and 'The Sims' are as different from highly publicised action/adventure games made infamous by media coverage as is night from day.

These role-playing games, known in the gaming world as RPGs are a fairly common genre. They usually involve a primary quest and once that quest is fulfilled, the game ends. Some RPGs can be longer and more complex than others. Some include a number of side quests and 'secrets' that prolong the game. Nonetheless, most RPGs have a definite beginning and end.

The Role-Playing Simulation game is a little different from the classic RPG in that often these games are open-ended. They may or may not involve primary 'quests' but even when a primary quest is fulfilled, the game will continue as long as the player enjoys playing it. Usually the goals are real 'life' goals involving career, marriage and family. The game is set in a detailed universe that operates according to well-defined laws. Certain requirements must be fulfilled in order for a career promotion to occur or a marriage proposal to be accepted. There is no violence in these games apart from the occasional random violence of Nature. (In Harvest Moon in certain seasons, there can be the risk of a typhoon or snowstorm that will destroy some crops.) Some games have time limits for fulfillment of specific goals but in most cases, it is the player's choice as to how he/she wishes to live in this alternate universe.

In any type of RPG, one of the goals is to improve skills and collect items that will advance life goals. In RPS games, interaction and friendship with other characters is essential, as high friendship levels unlock special items or events that advance the player's success in this alternate universe. Although these characters exist only in the realm of fantasy, the basic virtues of compassion, empathy, honesty, loyalty and steadfastness are emphasised. If a player concentrates exclusively on material gains, he/she ultimately will suffer, as friendship almost always is as important as money in these games.

There are three games that can be considered the finest examples of Role-Playing Simulation games: Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon and Sims. A brief description of each is given at the end of this article.

Interactive Classics

For any one who loves classical literature or film, gaming offers a new dimension. Through technology, classics such as Tolkien's Lord of the Rings' have become truly interactive. A player actually can participate in Peter Jackson's vision of Tolkien's Middle Earth and the struggle against Sauron through EA Games' 'Lord of the Rings' games. Other classics, including 'Chronicles of Narnia' come to life on PC, console and handheld systems. These games do have definitive endings, however, mirroring the endings found in the original books. There is a type of RPS without a definitive ending and it is the value of this sort of game as therapy that will be explored at length.

RPS Games as Therapy

What is characteristic of all these RPS games is the need to invest time in them. To succeed in any game of this sort takes time and requires patience. There are few time constraints, however, and one can play for a quarter of an hour or an entire day. Unlike other games that offer few opportunities to pause and save one's progress, RPS games typically can be saved at almost any point.

Role-playing Simulation games tend to be multi-dimensional in nature. A player is able to focus on the aspects of the game that interest him/her the most rather than being forced to pursue all goals with equal determination. Thus, they have a quite universal appeal. For example, many players are most interested in the relationships with other characters in terms of friendship, romance and marriage. Then, there are players who enjoy farming, and others who enjoy animal husbandry. Some love fishing while others love to explore the mines. The fact of the matter is that, provided one performs the basic minimum requirements of the game, one can customise gameplay to focus on the activities one enjoys most. This is where Role-Playing Simulation games differ fundamentally from other games.

Without a guide, a game can be frustrating but when a player can refer to a guide, the game becomes a haven from anxiety, a world in which, provided one performs all actions correctly, one can be certain of reaping the rewards. It is a world where cause and effect can be predicted for any action, but beyond that, it provides a very satisfying and fulfilling life for a player. Neglect will be punished but virtue will be rewarded. If one does make a mistake, one usually has an opportunity to correct it. It may take time, but one has as much time as one needs in the ultimate 'alternate reality' game.

If a player experiences physical limitations in the 'real world', the world of Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing liberates that player from his/her disabilities. In Harvest Moon games, one actually is able to ride a horse as well as walk and run. It is a very liberating feeling to be able to canter along the seashore or up a beautiful mountain trail. On another level, it is very satisfying to raise animals and then use the eggs that one has gathered from one's own chickens, butter made from the milk of one's own cow and vegetables that one has grown in one's own fields in a recipe. Success in Harvest Moon is gauged by the quality of the items that one's farm produces and one's level of friendship with other people.

The Sims games offer freedom of a very different kind. In 'The Sims', one can dress and behave outrageously in a manner that never would be tolerated in 'real life'. One can furnish one's house in the most garish fashion and take a job that one never would consider in reality. In fact, bizarre job opportunities that actually would make little sense in any society are commonplace in the Sims games. One can make a career of 'bagging ferrets', for example. 'The Sims' games involve some cooking and cleaning but there is no 'simple country life' of farming, hunting and fishing. Every Sims game is different, and all include bizarre social situations. Like any other Role-Playing Simulation game, however, one of the goals is improving the ultimate quality of life and often one is encouraged to raise a family.

The great appeal of 'The Sims' is in the freedom it provides to behave outrageously and to pursue bizarre lifestyles without fear of any negative repercussion in real life. Every one would like to 'behave badly' once in awhile or at least 'thumb one's nose' at society. 'The Sims' allows one to do that but in such a way that it never escalates into serious criminal behaviour. Some people believe that games like 'Grand Theft Auto', by glorifying immorality and vice, teach negative values to players. 'The Sims' is not that sort of game at all.

One cannot exist solely in an alternate reality, nor should one wish to do so. Solving problems and making advances in an alternate reality can provide fulfillment, restore confidence and refresh one's energy to allow one to return to the real world with renewed enthusiasm.

Obviously, one does not need a technological aid in order to create a 'meditation focus' allowing one relief from pain or anxiety. Game therapy is not proposed as an alternative to the innate power of the mind and spirit. On the other hand, it does offer a rich and varied resource that can be exploited by any one seeking relief from chronic pain or any other chronic condition. It is a great pity if any one were to be deprived of such an incredible aid through simple ignorance of its existence or potential. Technology may be a two-edged sword, but it is a shame not to experience all the blessings it has to offer.

(I am not going to copy the sections dealing with specific games here.)


Charles Bergeman said...

To dovetail on to this there is an on-line game called second-life that emulates real life in an interesting way.

You actually use real money to purchase virtual land and products to place on your land.

I careated an avatar to play around with it, but I found that I was to busy with real life to really give it a fair shake.

But if someone were home bound and in need of a way to interact with others in a meaningful, non-violent way, this is a great alternative.

And you could potentially make money at it too.

Freyashawk said...

Thank you for your suggestion. Unfortunately, online games do require an ongoing financial commitment which many disabled persons may be unable to manage.

The beauty of games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing is that they give one a 'break' from all those pressures in the alternate reality. One deals in 'bells' instead of hard currency in Animal Crossing. Tom Nook the Tanuki may be a bit of an extortionist sometimes, but one knows his actions won't affect one's security in the 'real world'.
However, for those who wish to combine the two realities, it's a great idea!

Every one has different needs and online gaming is an incredible way for many to find kindred spirits, compete with them and/or work with them in partnership.

I have noticed items for sale on Ebay, by the way, that have no existence or use outside of a specific online game. I suppose that is one of the ways one might 'make money' at it.

Fleming said...

Freyashawk, your expertise makes your article more important and useful than a mere theoretical analysis. Your ideas about gaming for the disabled and others who are in need of therapy are unique, and I hope that they will reach many readers who will benefit from them. I found your detailed analysis fascinating.

Yves said...

Your article reminds me of one I edited for a compendium of learned papers relating to crafts. I quote from its preamble:

"This paper is the result of investigations into contemporary home craft in Britain, undertaken as part of my PhD research, and focuses on a sample group of women who have used cross-stitch to combat both mental and physical illness."

I found it most interesting for the compassion of its author and the insight that it gave into pastimes that the chronic sick and housebound have employed to make their lives meaningful. I was at that time chronic sick and virtually housebound myself, but I used writing rather than cross-stitch, and resisted the addictive allure of games which had afflicted my children.

Your article makes a persuasive case, I must admit.