Can Video Games Help Kids to Cope with Stress?

Can video game proficiency really improve a child’s capacity to cope with adversity and enhance their resilience? Psychologists have been studying the personalities and life circumstances that promote “resilience” to help understand why some children are able to overcome stressful life circumstances and others are not. Now, experts in the gaming community are looking at the relationship between video game play and resilience.

At the 2012 Games for Health conference, Jane McGonigal, author of Reality Is Broken, described how games can increase four kinds of resilience: mental, physical, emotional, and social. She described how games can be used to promote positive behaviors such as exercise, meditative techniques, and encourage social interactions that all lead to increased resilience to stress. Her game, SuperBetter, builds on her techniques and is a proven tool for real world improvements in mental and physical health.

Other support for video game play as a tool for enhancing resilience comes out of the psychological literature. Mark Katz, Ph.D., author of  “On Playing a Poor Hand Well,” describes three characteristics that suggest how video games can promote resilience. These include the development of a sense of mastery, the capacity to bounce back with second chance opportunities, and the ability to connect, relate and enjoy positive feedback from others.

Katz describes “experiences that promote a sense of mastery” as protective processes that help children become more resilient.” Video game play may be a unique area where success and mastery contrast to other life experiences for children who struggle in school or socially.  They can take pride in the visible improvement they (and others) see from their efforts.  They can achieve this mastery through their own ingenuity and resources, through practice, and the ability to learn from failure.  All of these things reinforce resilience. Video game mastery may also help children identify areas of interest and  prepare them for future technological academic pursuits or careers.

The capacity to bounce back with second chance opportunities involves learning from prior experiences and mistakes.  Resilience is associated with incorporating these experiences in order to take advantage of favorable circumstances the next time.  It’s the nature of many video games for a player to “die”, and then later return to the playing field. One could argue that “bouncing back”,  a core component of resilience, is reinforced in many video games.

Surrounding oneself with supportive people and the encouragement, affiliation, and endorsement they provide are keys to resiliency.  Many individuals have found that engaging in the social aspects of interactive digital media can provide them with this opportunity. Massive multi-player online games, Facebooking, playing Xbox Live, or playing Words with Friends are examples of interactive digital media that can provide the kind of support that helps with resiliency.  While there is certainly legitimate concern that cyber-relationships may interfere with real-world relationships in some cases, the digital interactions for many individuals are an important vehicle to self-esteem and sense of well-being.

Involvement  with video games and other interactive digital media provide a positive path to the development of healthy behaviors, mastery, learning from mistakes, and interpersonal connections that may enhance the resiliency of children who have experienced stressful life circumstances. The next time you hear a struggling student or a child with few friends talk about their video game skills, how they finally figured out how to get to the next level of a game,  or how they connect with their online friends, consider how this experience with interactive digital technologies may work to help them overcome difficulties and stress in their life.

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