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How games can be used in therapy

Therapists are going beyond conventional talk therapy, using play to get their clients to open up and heal 

Games can help people to open up, say therapists
Games can help people to open up, say therapists (Unsplash)

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Gamification of mental health and therapy sessions isn't a norm in traditional therapy sessions but is slowly finding acceptance by quite a few therapists. As counselling is going beyond the conventional model of talk therapy, therapists have started seeing play, art, and visual aids as tools that can get their clients to open up and start the process of healing in healthier and more comfortable ways. 

Mint talks to three therapists who have started using games to aid therapy sessions and lists out their experiences and preferences.

Divya Srivastava, Counselling Psychologist, Founder - Silver Lining Wellness Center, Mumbai 

Why does gamification work?

When working with children and adolescents, Srivastava has often used board games, dolls, legos, clay, teddy bears, and other toys to build rapport and work on the issues they may be facing that bring them to therapy. "We tend to associate play-time with having fun, and games in therapy are beneficial because, at first, they help the client automatically relax and lower defences and resistance. Through games, clients are able to learn new coping mechanisms and redirect inappropriate behaviours. Sometimes, toys can act as symbols and take on deeper meanings; it helps us get a glimpse into the client's world without the latter being guarded or feeling rushed to communicate and process emotions," she explains. 

Also read: How dance can heal your mind

What Is Your Approach?

Srivastava says that simple games like "Uno", "Ludo", and "Snakes and Ladders" can teach children the concept of turn-taking and help them deal with losing and winning. She gives an example by saying, "Frustration may seep in when they are forced to skip a turn in Uno or draw extra cards; in Ludo, when they aren't able to get a "6"; or in Snakes and Ladders when they land on a "snake" and fall behind." 

What Are Your Preferred Games? 

There are several games that she uses, but some common ones that she recommends are:

  • Piktureka: Not only does it encourage one to focus and pay attention to details,but it also gives us an insight into biases and stereotypes that a person has imbibed if one uses it creatively.
  • Jenga: It's great for rapport-building, especially for those who take a while to open up and interact. It helps the client with strategy, problem-solving and responsive thinking.
  • Scavenger Hunt: I used this game a lot online, and it was really fun! Using prompts like "bring me three things that make you happy or anxious or sad" gave me a lot of insight into the clients' worlds in a short span of time and served as a useful ice-breaker.

Anshuma Kshetrapal, Psychotherapist, Drama & Movement Therapist, Delhi

Why Does Gamification  Work?
Kshetrapal, who is used to deploying creative techniques in her counselling sessions, believes that gamification of mental health processes and play therapy are an integral part of the work she does with her clients. "My clients and I devise and play many games during therapy that help bring out their emotions. These games are devised spontaneously and are mostly not influenced by cultural perspectives." She believes that gamification is preferred by her and other therapists who do similar work and use similar techniques as it is a non-threatening and non-invasive way of engaging with clients. 

What Is Your Approach?

Her approach involves creating customised decks for clients which will help them deal with their own issues, such as anxiety and panic attacks. "It is insightful work", she says, "It can help traumas come to the surface through play and reduce the stress of having to go through talk therapy, especially for those clients who do not wish to talk about traumatic events."

What Are Your Preferred Games? 

Kshetrapal prefers playing open-ended games such as Pictionary. She adds, "I've played antakshari to build rapport and help people introduce their cultural songs to others. I've played protest where we organise an imaginary protest against our perpetrators and write letters to the editor. I've played physical games like zip zap, boing or theatre games to warm up the client too."

Meher Makkar, Counselling Psychologist, Kaha Minds, Bengaluru

Why Does Gamification  Work?
The idea behind using games and activities is also to interact and engage with people by introducing heavy topics in a light and relatable manner. Makkar says that when used strategically, games can be an excellent way to engage with people and build initial rapport. "They are helpful as tools to break the ice and make people feel comfortable with each other during group discussions and workshops. Although I don't work with children, I know that many therapists who work with younger people also make use of a bunch of games to relate with the children and capture their interest," she elaborates. 

What Is Your Approach?

While Makkar doesn't use games during her therapy sessions, she does incorporate them into her corporate workshops and seminars. "It can be a tool that helps people build self-awareness and understand others around them," she states. 

Also read: Five aspects of mania felt by a bipolar person

What Are Your Preferred Games? 

"Giving a mental health spin to some of the traditional games like charades, bingo, 'two truths and a lie' has been a fun and effective way to talk to people about their feelings and thoughts," she says. She also uses such interactive games to educate people about mental health-related concerns and dispel myths about the same.

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist

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