I got my Bachelor’s in Psych, but I basically earned a Ph.D. in Playing Videogames. As such, I’m overjoyed when games and mental health, my two greatest passions, collide. I imagine it’s the sort of glee that lifelong gamer and practicing counselor, Stephen Kuniak, feels while researching and writing his doctoral dissertation on the culture of gamers, which aims to explore, in his own words, “…any relationship that may exist between gamer personality types, coping strategies, and resiliency.”
I met Stephen briefly at PAX East 2013, where he was collecting data for his dissertation. We talked about his research and the type of data he was collecting (general demographic information, personality measures, coping strategy preferences, levels of resiliency). I remember thinking it was an interesting idea for a thesis: I was curious as to his hypotheses, and eager to read his conclusions. And I thought it was a brave topic, given the tragedy at Newton and how frequently the media blames videogames.
Gamers, you see, face an enormous amount of stigma, especially from within the psychological community. I know this from both the academic journals I’ve read and the first-hand interactions I’ve had with therapists who believe that videogames are, at best, an immature form of escapism or, at worst, a destructive addiction.
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe that behavioral addictions can and sometimes do occur: when something begins to interfere with your academic, occupational, or social functioning, than yeah, there might be a problem. But I’m nevertheless wary of overpathologizing an entire group of people based solely on their hobbies and what they choose to do in their free time. It’s like saying that someone who enjoys her morning run has a “jogging addiction,” or that someone who likes to read in his spare time is “addicted to books.” Pretty ridiculous, right?
Still, there is a tendency within the psychological community to generalize gamers, and for the media to depict them a certain way. The stereotype is hardly flattering: isolated, lonely individuals, lacking both social skills and self-restraint. Sure, that’s probably true of some gamers, but the majority of us would argue that this isn’t an accurate portrayal.
And don’t even get me started on the whole videogames and violence thing. I could write an entire dissertation on the subject, but I’ll try to spare you. First of all, the media tends to conflate correlation with causation: yes, a few (non-significant) studies have found a correlative “link” between videogames and violent behavior, but that doesn’t prove the former caused the latter. Correlation does not imply causation. Secondly, the research is anything but conclusive: data, from the few studies with large enough samples and scientifically sound methods, are mixed. By and large, the jury’s still out on whether or not videogames actually increase violent behavior in children and young adults. To me, it seems that individuals who commit acts of unspeakable violence had preexisting, untreated mental health issues and whether or not they played videogames is irrelevant.
But that’s not how the media would spin it, and that is exactly the sort of stigma Stephen Kuniak is working to change. Others, such as Jane McGonigal, have discussed the beneficial aspects of gaming. Playing videogames requires a particular sort of resiliency, the ability to rebound from a crushing defeat and try again. With perseverance, hard work, and a few setbacks, you will eventually succeed. Indeed, this is the same sort of attitude necessary to combating and overcoming a mental illness.
What better tool to teach these skills than videogames? There are some people within the psychological community, Stephen Kuniak and I among them, who believe that videogames can be a valuable tool in the therapeutic process. Biofeedback, for instance, has been found effective in treating a variety of problems, ranging from traumatic brain injury to anxiety and mood disorders. Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET) is the gold-standard treatment for certain phobias as well as PTSD.
I for one predict that videogames will become an integral part of the “self-help” market: rather than reading a self-help manual, people will play self-help videogames, learning the same skills in a medium that is increasingly more accessible. A cognitive-behavioral therapy app, downloaded directly to your phone. Sites like SuperBetter have already begun this process.
But there is still much work to be done. Gamers, according to Stephen Kuniak, are an underserved population: rarely are they studied in scientific research, and most clinicians either misunderstand or misdiagnose them. Which brings me to his latest project. Kuniak recently launched a crowdsource campaign to fund a first-of-its-kind “Gamer Wellness Program”
“Wellness,” a term coined in the positive psychology movement, is living life to its fullest, placing “an emphasis on being present, responsible, and in filling your life with positive experiences.” Kuniak wants to create a location where self-identified “gamers” can achieve wellness and find support with other like-minded individuals. The Gamer Wellness Program has four primary goals: socialization, education, treatment, and research.
Contrary to popular belief, gaming is a social activity that can promote meaningful interactions with others. Kuniak’s program will provide opportunities for individuals to build positive interactions with one another, and learn valuable social skills, through gaming. He writes, “Participants will use gaming to learn how to create success through trial and error. Gamers will learn how to be gracious winners, and good losers.”
Education, for both gamers and the people in their lives, is equally important. As noted, there are many misconceptions about videogames and the people who play them. This program hopes to combat this stigma by providing educational sessions to parents, teachers, and other mental health providers. Gamers themselves will learn the importance of good gaming habits and gamer etiquette.
Certified counselors will be on hand for gamers seeking treatment. Individual and group therapy will be available on an outpatient basis for those interested. Therapeutic groups will be designed with gamers in mind (I’m thinking some sort of hybrid between cognitive-behavioral therapy and tabletop role-playing). What’s really cool is the “cybertherapy” component: counseling services at the Gamer Wellness Program will be available to anyone with Skype, regardless of their location.
Finally, the Gamer Wellness Program is an ideal venue for Kuniak to further his research on gamers and the culture of videogames. In a field where sample size means everything, where else could you get so many gamers in the same room together (other than game conventions like PAX East, where Kuniak already collected data)? For meaningful change to occur regarding how gamers are perceived within the psychological community, articles must be published in reputable, peer-reviewed journals. That requires research, and most importantly a population from which to collect data.
It’s not going to be easy. The costs of creating this sort of program are enormous. Kuniak hopes to raise $150,000 by the middle of next month. But, “Every contribution, no matter how small or large, is critical.” If you are interested in contributing, or would like more information, visit Kuniak’s Indiegogo page and watch his video!