ipadWhen it comes to video games, the word “empathy” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Yet some video game designers have begun to stray from the pack, creating games with storylines that attempt to teach compassion or help the players manage their emotions.


Designers of the game “High School Story” recently wove in a new story arc about cyberbullying. Another game, “If,” an iPad app for ages 6 to 12, was created to teach empathy, self-awareness and listening skills.


“You have to meet people where they’re at,” Trip Hawkins, the creator of “If,” told USA Today in a recent interview. “Where are our kids right now? They’ve got their fingers on a device.”


Could these new games be used as counseling tools? Might they serve as a way to reach a digital generation that has grown up using screens – from iPads to smartphones – as part of their everyday lives?


“It’s a tool – another tool for teaching some of these basic concepts [such as empathy],” says Marty Jencius, an associate professor at Kent State University and co-founding editor of The Journal of Technology in Counseling. However, he cautions, counselors should be comfortable with the game and its medium (iPad, smartphone, etc.) themselves before attempting to use it with clients.


Most important, Jencius says games should not be viewed as a substitute for counseling but rather as one of many tools used by counselors. “Bad counseling skills don’t get fixed by technology,” he says. “[They’re] not a substitute for good practice and good technique.”


Janis Booth, an associate professor in the Mississippi College Department of Psychology and Counseling, contends it is natural and appropriate for counselors to make use of the same mediums – tablet computers and other technology – younger clients use all the time at school and home.


“To employ [technology], it is imperative that we become more technologically savvy and be extremely mindful of ethical issues related to both the hardware/equipment we are using – or suggesting our students/clients use – and the particular software or applications we are using,” she says.


Sarah Spiegelhoff, a counselor at Le Moyne College’s Wellness Center in Syracuse, N.Y., says technology – from social media and apps to blogging – can be a useful way to connect with clients. “I find technology resources to be great tools to supplement traditional counseling services, as well as a way for counselors to reach larger populations than we typically serve on an individual basis,” says Spiegelhoff, who is also an adjunct counseling faculty member at the State University of New York at Oswego.


“I find that college students are quicker to check Facebook and Twitter statuses than their email, so using social media has been one way for us to promote and distribute information on healthy living and outreach events,” she says. “I also share information related to new apps that promote wellness both through our social media accounts and directly in counseling sessions. For example, during alcohol awareness programming, we encouraged students to download free blood alcohol calculator apps. We also offer free mindfulness meditation MP3s through iTunesU. I find the MP3s to be a great resource because I am able to present them to clients in session, talk about their experiences listening to and practicing the meditations, and then develop a treatment plan that includes their use of the meditations outside of the counseling sessions. Since the MP3s are free and can be played on their computers, smartphones and MP3 players, clients are open to the idea and are able to introduce this practice into everyday living.”


Booth, who gave a presentation on smartphone apps that can be useful for counselors and their clients at the 2013 ACA Conference in Cincinnati, is excited about this new wave of video games and other technologies, but reservedly so.


“There are wonderful tools available for all forms of technology which, when used ethically and knowledgeably, can enhance both our ability to provide support to clients in and out of our offices and likely improve or simplify how we run our offices,” Booth says. “But to be used effectively, I think these mediums should be used to enhance the work of counselors, not replace it. What faculty supervisors, site supervisors and other counselor educators are attempting to teach students about what being a counselor actually means is what really matters.”


As an example, Booth references the iconic “Gloria” film series, in which Carl Rogers (person-centered therapy), Fritz Perls (Gestalt therapy) and Albert Ellis (rational emotive behavior therapy) are shown applying their respective therapy approaches with the same client. Booth watched the film as a counseling student and still screens it with her students today.


She says her students “still report learning a great deal about how to be an effective counselor from the master counselors in the film. … Do they experience Carl Rogers being empathic? Oh yes. Does it teach them to be empathic? No.”


“What we cannot teach by the use of technology or any other method,” she continues, “is how and what to feel in response to a client and how a client will comprehend that a counselor truly understands those feelings.”




Counselors, could iPad games and other technologies serve as useful counseling tools? If so, how are you using these tools with your clients? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.




For more reading:

More about Sarah Spiegelhoff’s work and use of technology



USA Today article on the iPad game “If”



NPR story: “In gaming, a shift from enemies to emotions”



Washington Post article on game with story arc involving cyberbullying



NPR story: “Video game creators are using apps to teach empathy”



NY Times article on crisis counseling via text message: nyti.ms/1bsqOzu



Bethany Bray is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

Follow Counseling Today on twitter @ACA_CTonline

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