Video games are often believed to be linked to problems for children, rather than any kind of solution for them. One study1, for example, found a correlation between pathological gaming ("video game addiction") and depression, anxiety, and other social phobias. These kids who spent excessive time playing video games to the exclusion of other activities had trouble fitting in with their peers and were more impulsive. It was initially believed by the researchers that depression would be the underlying problem, but it became apparent that the onset of pathological gaming precluded a worsening of symptoms of depression and anxiety, and if the children stopped gaming, the symptoms lessened.
But it turns out that video games aren't the entirely negative influence some would have us believe. One company even thinks they can be used to solve some of the aforementioned problems, particularly social anxiety.
In a society in which being successful often requires some level of confidence in interacting with other people, social anxiety is a real problem. And, of course, a child with social anxiety is probably quite unhappy; the nervousness she feels at the prospect of interacting with others might stop her from making any real friends, let alone being able to talk to her teachers. School must be a pretty terrifying place for these kids.
Researchers at the University of Central Florida's Anxiety Disorders Clinic2 are working with a company called Virtually Better3 to help children with these sorts of issues. And what they’ve created looks a lot like a video game4.
The software consists of a simulation, in which the child with social anxiety disorder is encouraged to interact with avatars representing classmates and teachers in a school environment. The clinician working with the child can sit in a different room and control those avatars (though the avatars' voices are recordings made by children to boost realism), while the child practices responding to different social situations, e.g. giving and receiving compliments, asking and answering questions, and being assertive.
Different levels of difficulty allow for a learning curve, so that the patient has time to learn how to respond appropriately to basic situations before moving onto more complex scenarios like a bully asking for their lunch money. The clinician can also use the range of characters to create a scenario tailored to their patient. A child who is fairly comfortable talking to teachers but has struggled to make friends with their classmates might benefit from focusing on interactions with characters like the 'popular girl' and 'smart girl', for example.
Yet despite the potential for different ways of using it, the basic simulation is the same for each child, which cuts costs dramatically. Games like this one could provide a way to get basic treatment to more kids, even those whose parents can't afford expensive therapy. A game probably couldn't replace one-on-one treatment entirely, but this one was designed specifically to help those children improve, and if the trials go well, then it will be a very interesting step in the right direction.