Video games as therapy has been a hot topic in the news recently. This has a lot to do with Akili Interactive Labs’ Project: EVO, which is breaking new ground as the first non-pharmaceutical ADHD treatment to undergo the FDA approval process. Akili just released the results of its pilot study, the findings of which were overwhelmingly positive. But before Project: EVO there was, well, us. While the jury is still out on whether or not a video game, or any one therapy by itself, can actually cure ADHD, we’ve long believed that video games are beneficial for all children, and can be an effective part of the treatment of ADHD, autism, and executive function disorder.
Most video games practice most of the major thinking skills, and you can even target specific problem areas—like organizing places and things, developing empathy, and adapting to obstacles—with the right knowledge and resources. But there are a few things all video games have in common that make it very easy to determine if they’ll be useful tools to use with your child.
Here are five signs that video game therapy is right for your child.
1. They like video games.
Most kids do, that’s for sure. In 2011, one research firm found that a whopping 91% of kids aged 2-17 play video games. The best teachers know that in order to reach and teach kids, you need to gain and keep their interests. This is a big reason technology is being used in the classroom with increasing frequency. There’s even an official term for it: blended learning.
2. They have an unreasonable fear of failure or disapproval.
Adults aren’t the only ones who have anxieties about not being good at things or getting rejected. Children struggle with these fears too, and having ADHD or other executive functioning problems can exacerbate them. But failing and trying again is the way we learn. One of the things that makes video games so alluring, particularly to kids who have executive function deficits, is that they present a safe environment in which to put in effort, experiment, fail, and try new strategies in a way they might not dare in real life.
3. They have trouble with math or reading.
One thing all video games have in common is the manner in which they exercise a player’s focus and working memory. You probably don’t need to be told that these are extremely important skills. You may not realize, however, how important they are just for basic things like reading and math. If your child struggles with these subjects in an academic setting, there’s a good chance they have a problem with one or both of these skills. If that’s the case, video games could very well be part of the solution.
4. They just can’t seem to get motivated.
If your child tends to start slowly, or resists initiating tasks altogether, video games could be the answer. The child who leaps up to do homework the way he scrambles toward a game console is rare. One doctor’s theory is that children with ADHD are easily bored, and they gravitate toward video games because of how easily those games stimulate the reward center of the brain. But games don’t just hold sway over kids with ADHD. Let’s face it, there are lots of things in life that just aren’t fun to do, and when you get satisfaction more quickly and more easily from video games, it’s difficult to want to tackle the more arduous real-world tasks. Consider the trend of gamification—a buzzword currently floating around schools and corporations alike. Schools and businesses are seeking to gamify academics and marketing because it engages people in ways traditional methods do not. Apps like SuperBetter, ChoreMonster, and HabitRPG help bring this philosophy home.
5. They lack “stick-to-it-iveness.”
Parents whose children struggle to sit still long enough to get even half of their homework done may wonder how on Earth these same children are able to play video games for hours on end if permitted. Why is the hyperfocus characteristic of children with ADHD so selective? The same theoretical boredom that prevents some kids from beginning tasks could well be at the root of their trouble completing them. But video games are so absorbing and make it so easy to finish tasks—with maps, labels, clear directions, and quick rewards—that it’s not difficult to complete mission after mission; in fact, it’s quite fun. The concept of gamification mentioned above won’t just help kids get motivated, it will encourage them to stick to it. By helping kids understand what makes a game so engaging, and taking our cues from those games to, say, provide instructions in visual, memorable ways or assign point values and rewards to everyday tasks, we can help kids persist in life the way they do in video games.
If one or more of these issues are familiar, it’s likely that your child will benefit from video game therapy. Talking to your child about the games they are playing and how they might relate to real life is a great first step. Our Playbooks and App+ reviews give parents and educators the rundown on the popular games kids are playing and apps they are using, including the executive functions exercised and tips on how to play, use, and talk about technologies with a child. Basic LW4K membership is free, and gives you access to all of the Playbooks and App+ reviews in our archive, in their entirety.
Artwork: Leah Watkins, 2015