Creating Video Games for Bonding


This week in the clinic, one of the wonderful medical assistants was saying how she was looking forward to getting home that night for the weekly extended family dinner and video game night — primarily Mario Kart. Generally, there are about ten adults and kids that converge, and given that only six people can play the video game at a time, the person who loses a round has to give up the controller. She said they all spend a lot of time laughing. They also have a dinner together where they have lively conversations.

I just listened to a podcast from The Ted Radio Hour titled Press Play that is a great one to share with teens (it does have some heavy topics). The show talks about the research on play and how important it is. It describes how play acts as a social glue — and looks at video games.

One study cited is about the fact that when a person is put in a room with another person they do not know, stress levels go up for the two people. Researchers found that the cooperative aspect of the video game Rock Band, requiring people to work together to get a good score, helped them bond with each other quickly and reduce the stress of being with a new person. Now I admit, I did not read this study, so I do not know what happened in the control group — i.e., I would think that after 15 minutes of just being in a room with someone, by then the stress would go back down to baseline even without a video game… but I digress. 

There is no doubt lots of fun energy and bonding can happen over video games. They can even inspire people to make changes to improve their lives. 

Jane McGonigal, a creator of video games, is featured in the podcast for her work in making the game called "SuperBetter.” She starts by suggesting that playing games are a safe way to practice asking for support. In a game setting, the usually vulnerable act of asking for help is transformed into a low-cost game strategy.

McGonigal created SuperBetter after an awful post-concussive state. She was battling suicidal thoughts and had been researching the psychology of play and was inspired to create a game that could help. The goal of the game is to build "resilience — the ability to stay strong, motivated, and optimistic even in the face of change and difficult challenges." For her depression, she created "power-ups", which are small rewards in the game that would get her to do things in real life to feel better such as a 5-minute cuddle with her dog or a walk around the block. Her depression regularly kept her deeply unmotivated, but the game gave her the desire to do those seemingly small maneuvers. Many people have used the game to address goals in their lives, like improving their physical health. 

What do our kids think about video games in terms of fostering connectedness? And what ideas do they have about how a game can address helping people improve their lives? 

Would they consider brainstorming a game idea with you today — a video game or any type of game? How could their game bring joy to a family or group of friends playing it? Perhaps a game about pie-throwing in a carnival in the slippery snow? A game about Trojan horses racing in the Kentucky Derby? What about racing with superpowers up the Space Needle in Seattle, or.....?

So for this TTT:

  1. How can video games bring joy as a "together" activity?

  2. If you have not been playing with your kids, is there a way you could do so at least once this week?

  3. What could be a cool prosocial game one could design? (Saving bees that are facing a major decline, providing housing to those in need, replenishing the fish in the ocean, etc.)

  4. Do you ever ask for help in a game? How about in real life?

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