The intersection between videogames and mental health is coming under increasing scrutiny, both within the game industry and beyond it. Examples include The Insight Project, launched by Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice creative director Tameem Antoniades, and psychiatrist and professor of health neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, Paul Fletcher, in order to address a core question: ‘Could a videogame promote mental wellbeing and reduce mental suffering?’
The end goal is to create “absorbing game experiences” that can help players identify and gain control over mental health concerns they might be facing. But while projects like this are exploring how games could go beyond merely representing mental health issues “and become a tool for treatment strategies” in the future, there are examples of how powerful games can be in helping those with mental ill health already.
One such example is Overwatch, which a therapist working in a clinic for teenagers and adolescents says has proved “very powerful” in his sessions.
In a post on Reddit, therapist Grant (who goes by the username Calix19) says: “You might imagine that working with teenagers presents its own unique challenges. They don’t always want to be in my office. Therapy for them is just another stupid thing their parents are making them do, and I’m just the next person who doesn’t really listen.” He adds that “sometimes kids are naturally guarded and (fairly or unfairly) feel misunderstood or forgotten by the world”, but as a therapist, he wants his office to feel like a safe space for them to be themselves – and that, crucially, he is “a person who ‘gets it'”.
This is where Blizzard’s multiplayer shooter comes in. “I consistently find myself getting some unique help in that regard”, he explains. “Occasionally those clients will look around my room, and I will notice their eyes settle on the wall just behind me and above my head.”
He goes on to explain how Overwatch plays a key role in making a vital connection with his young clients, signalling that they share an experience. He gets “to hear about their favourite characters, or a particularly exciting play of the game they got, while I build a little trust with them. All it takes is a little sign to connect.”
We reached out to Grant to find out more about this, asking for examples in which games have helped him connect with his young clients in this way. Grant cites a breakthrough with a teenaged girl “who had experienced sexual trauma.”
“This client came into my office and sat down with the neck of her sweater pulled up to hide her face”, he tells us. “After some initial greetings and getting started on the intake paperwork, she noticed my Overwatch poster. She pulled her sweater down from her head, showed her head, made eye contact for the first time since entering my room, and started talking about how she is a Soldier: 76 main.
“We talked for a little while about how cool that was, because it’s one of the more rare mains”, he says. As Grant was finishing the meeting, he explained that the client was free to request a switch to a female clinician, which the initial paperwork had suggested she might be more comfortable with. It happens all the time and doesn’t hurt the counselors’ feelings at all. But “she told me that she wanted to come back to see me.
“That’s the kind of thing I like best about it”, Grant explains. “I want the kids to feel like my office is a place where they can be themselves – especially if they feel embarrassed or scared to share who that is sometimes. Then I want for that trust to give us momentum as a team to figure out other things they want to change about their lives.”
While Overwatch tends to be “more popular” with his teenage clients, and “almost every younger child comes in talking about Fortnite and Minecraft”, he says “there isn’t really any one particular demographic of people that respond more than others.It struck me how games have connected people and transcended gender, race, and age”, he explains. And it seems they can help in a variety of situations, too.
Grants tells us about another client who was “struggling with some antisocial behaviour and his family”, and how the shared ground of games – specifically, a NES classic – helped bring them together. Another of his clients and her father were able to open up more in a session after she also noticed the Overwatch poster. Her father “didn’t know Overwatch, but he did know Call of Duty”, Grant explains. “He brightened for a moment as he talked about enjoying the new one and the fact that there wasn’t any wall-running.”
For Grant’s young clients – who may be dealing with highly sensitive issues, authority figures who don’t have Grant’s empathy or expertise, or perhaps both – games provide a reassuring commonality, and that’s a place to start. “Like, I get it”, he says. “You’re worried because you spent all weekend debating and practising counters to the double barrier meta. Well, my wife and I danced to Final Fantasy VI’s Theme of Love at our wedding. Try me. I want them to think that if I can get some of that, then maybe I can also understand other things they have going on in their lives that might not be so easy to talk about.”
While he has other memorabilia in his office that can start conversations with clients – like “NFL stuff” – “nothing resonates as strongly or generates such an instant connection, and almost camaraderie, as when something like the passion and excitement for videogames clicks”, Grant says.
“One of the things that stands out to me is how it happens in much the same way as counselors who leave signs and clues around the office about being an LGBTQ ally and safe space. A subtle picture or a little item to indicate alignment. Something that says ‘it’s okay to yourself around this person’.”