Therapists have been known to use role playing toys like dollhouses or puppets to try to break through inhibitions and connect emotionally with children and adults, a trope that’s been lampooned in movies like The Beaver. Now a group of researchers in the UK has created one of the first therapeutic video games, meant to be played by teens aged 10 to 15, with a therapist sitting right alongside them.
The graphic, character-based game, gNats Island, is based on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. In CBT, the patient spends a short, focused series of sessions learning to identify and challenge the negative automatic thoughts that feed emotional disorders like anxiety and depression. CBT is a well-supported therapeutic approach, but it requires a level of abstract thought that may be difficult for children.
On the “island,” players “meet” the negative automatic thoughts in the form of pesky “gNats” that have a “nasty sting.” The Black and White gNat makes you think in extremes. The Complete Disaster gNat makes you think everything is a complete disaster, and so on. Almost 750 therapists in the U.S., Ireland and the UK have been trained to use the game with their young patients. Preliminary results from a small trial suggests that after six sessions playing the game alongside a therapist, a child’s anxiety and depression scores fell from the “clinical” to “normal” range. A larger trial is in the final planning stages, as is an iPhone version of the game.