This Video Game Helps Kids Deal With Mental Health Issues

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.

[Flickr user: Nateone ]