Can video games and comic books be used as a counseling tool?
Absolutely, say Josué Cardona and Stephen Kuniak, licensed professional counselors who advocate for what they call “geek therapy.”
Superheroes, science fiction and other “geeky” things can be used as conversation starters with clients and help to further the therapeutic relationship, say Cardona and Kuniak. [Click here for the related article]
Here are some comic books, video games and other geek therapy resources Cardona and Kuniak recommend to start conversations and use as metaphors with clients:
- I Kill Giants, a comic book series and graphic novel by Joe Kelly and J.M. Ken Nimura
A little girl copes with her mother’s illness by becoming a giant killer because she believes that if she can defeat giants, she can defeat death. The main character creates a fantasy world to cover up what’s going on around her. She also sees a therapist who helps her a lot over the course of the story.
- Incorruptible, a comic book series by Mark Waid
A supervillain decides to become a superhero but learns that it’s impossible to be perfect and that being perfect (or even near perfect) does not make you a good superhero. The main character’s power is that he gets stronger (more resilient) as time passes, an ability he chose for himself after getting beat up as a child.
- Papo & Yo, a video game by Vander Caballero
The player goes through the game as Quico, a young boy with a giant monster who is mostly docile but sometimes gets very angry and hurts Quico. The game is Caballero’s way of working through his relationship with his alcoholic father.
- The Unfinished Swan video game
A young boy’s mother, an artist, passes away, and all the boy has left is one of her unfinished paintings. The boy copes with his mother’s death by navigating 3D worlds based on his mother’s art.
- Runaways, a comic book series by Brian K. Vaughn
A group of teenagers discover that their parents are all supervillains. The teens choose to not be like their parents and become a group of superheroes instead.
- Spec Ops: The Line video game
A soldier has to deal with the consequences of his actions. Game players see that the events being played out are not exactly as they seem and even experience some “hallucinations.” The game is a commentary on the absurdity of modern military shooting games and introduces the potential psychological effects of warfare. [Warning: This game could have very serious effects on veterans.]
- Depression Quest, an interactive fiction game in which players “play” as someone living with depression
Game players are presented with realistic scenarios and given many choices. Some choices — usually the healthiest — are visible but unavailable, demonstrating how difficult it can be for a person living with depression to recognize healthier alternatives and follow through with those decisions.
Kuniak often uses Spider-Man with a number of his clients because the character is regularly forced to deal with loss and associated hurts. “I’ve used the example before of Spider-Man making jokes while fighting crime,” Kuniak says. “There are several instances where he explains that he does this because he’s scared, which is an example of a coping strategy but still choosing to be brave.”
- Halo video game series
The game’s story is a great example of heroism. “I have had a number of young and older clients talk to me about their love of the main character, Master Chief, because of his selflessness,” Kuniak says. “However, I’ve used the ‘forge’ tools in the game (level editing) as a way of working through virtual sand boxes with my clients. It’s been a huge benefit to dialogue with the client’s focus on this particular task (you could also use the game Minecraft for this same purpose).”
- Braid video game
A game with a classic Mario Bros. style. However, players experience the character searching through his own cloudy past seeking out a princess. SPOILER: As the story develops, players see that their character has actually been very hurtful to the princess, and the reason she is always in another castle is because she’s actually running from you.
- Star Wars
As with many well-known franchises, there is some universal understanding of Star Wars, even if the client hasn’t seen the specific film or story. Says Kuniak, “I have used a lot of Jedi teachings (self control, respect, discipline and compassion) to illustrate points with my clients. I’ve even worked with a few young clients on ‘Jedi Training’ in a group.”
In one example, Kuniak gives young clients paper towel tubes, buttons and other craft supplies to build their own lightsaber (the Jedi version of a sword) as they’re making progress in therapy sessions. In the Star Wars universe, Jedi “knights” also build their own lightsaber as part of their training.
- Lord of the Rings
Says Kuniak, “I have used the Lord of the Rings story, and particularly the idea of the ‘one ring,’ as an example with clients who are struggling with addiction, or even general things about themselves that they don’t like. A specific example is a line spoken by the character Gandalf about the character Gollum. Gandalf explains that Gollum ‘hates and loves the Ring, as he hates and loves himself.’ This has resonated with some of my clients.”
- That Dragon, Cancer, a video game (not yet released)
The game allows players to experience parts of the actual experiences of the game designer’s 4-year-old son, who is in his third year struggling with terminal cancer.
- The Nerdist Way, a book by Chris Hardwick
This is a self-help book of sorts in which Chris Hardwick, a self-described ambassador of the nerds (or Nerdist, as he puts it), helps readers to understand how their skills as nerds (he prefers this term over geeks) can help them to be better people in general.
- Reality Is Broken, a book by Jane McGonigal
The book explores video games and why individuals are leaving real worlds to be in virtual worlds. McGonigal proposes a number of ideas around how the skills of gamers can be leveraged to create more useful real worlds outside of their virtual world experiences.
- Journey video game
The player goes on a quest to reach the top of a distant mountain. Another player can join the original player on the quest, but they can’t communicate, except during a musical chime in the game. Players are meant to work together to reach their goal. The game’s music was nominated for a Grammy award. Many folks speak to a feeling of self-exploration while playing.
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