Connecting Through Consoles

by Hope Notaro, M.A., LMHC & Tim Couto, M.A.

A common difficulty among the kids we work with is starting and maintaining conversations.  Most of our clients are boys and we know that male social interactions tend more toward doing things together rather than chatting.  When you consider that on top of this, the kids who come to us tend to have marked deficits in reciprocity and often have difficulty understanding why engaging in conversation with someone else would even be something they want to do, you can imagine how unusual it is to see an Academy client overhear part of a conversation and jump into it.  And yet, this is exactly what happened the other day when a client walked in and heard a group discussing the intricacies of a new video game that just came out. Just as the weather or last night’s game might be your go-to jumping off points for conversations, the hidden shortcuts in the latest Mario Kart game or some other gaming factoid that I don’t understand are often how our kids can connect and maintain interactions.  Enter the Academy Video Game Group. In late December, we began sending out information about the first round of Video Game Groups. Because we had never run a group like this before, we weren’t quite sure if there would be enough interest to even get it started. Sure enough, we were able to run not only one group, but two and have been able to continue to offer the group for a second round of enrollment.

Video games tend to get a bad rap for being solitary activities in which children’s eyeballs become semi-permanently adhered to screens. In some cases, they certainly can be. In our group setting, we have found that video games can be not only entertaining but also ripe for working on a range of social skills.

As with most gym-based Academy groups, the video game group provides some structure – in this case the video games – as well as room for the group to shape the experience through decision making.  Video games tend to get a bad rap for being solitary activities in which children’s eyeballs become semi-permanently adhered to screens. In some cases, they certainly can be. In our group setting, we have found that video games can be not only entertaining but also ripe for working on a range of social skills.  Just as with a gym-based group, each video game group has established their own routines and inside jokes which has helped them build rapport with each other and establish norms for the group which everyone respects. One of the expectations that we set at the outset of the group was that the entire group needed to make decisions together.  This was probably the biggest challenge in both groups at the outset and was the area where the group needed the most support. However, as the groups have continued, the members have increasingly become more cohesive and decision making has become a more autonomous process. Although the video game group has many similarities to our gym-based groups, the biggest difference is that most videogames are inherently competitive.  Unlike the gym games, counselors don’t have as much flexibility to manage how a game turns out and there is only one winner at the end of the game.  Unlike many of our clients, Hope did not grow up in a household with video games. Her brother never had any interest in them and she doesn’t think she knew they existed until she was well out of the critical stage for acquiring skill and interest in them.  Although it is, on the surface, quite a simple task, it somehow seems infinitely more difficult to master the skill of hitting the right button at the right time when in the late twenties than it seems to be in the formative years. Thus, Hope is pretty bad at video games which makes for a great learning opportunity when Hope plays. One way this has come up is in Mario Party which has a number of mini-games which require players to work together. In these cases, Hope’s partner/s gets to practice being a supportive teammate when Hope inevitably struggles with the activity. During more individual games, like Super Smash or Mario Kart, kids have been working on being gracious winners and learning the fine boundary between playful teasing and making fun of someone.  And of course, the best part of these games is when Hope almost pulls out a win and then gets cut down at the last minute causing Hope to “rage” as it’s called in the gamer community. Of course this is done playfully and has been a silly way to lighten the mood about competition and laugh together as a group.

One of the best parts of working at the Academy is helping kids find their social niche, especially for kids who have felt like outcasts in many other settings. The video game group has been a positive setting for Academy kids to find connections with kids they wouldn’t have otherwise met at the Academy and to be genuinely and successfully socially engaged. 

At the end of the first round of the group, we asked group members what they liked and didn’t like about the group.  The critiques were that kids wished the group was longer than an hour. The most common theme in the positive feedback from both groups was that kids liked having a place to play video games, in person, with kids who are like them.  One of the best parts of working at the Academy is helping kids find their social niche, especially for kids who have felt like outcasts in many other settings. The video game group has been a positive setting for Academy kids to find connections with kids they wouldn’t have otherwise met at the Academy and to be genuinely and successfully socially engaged.  And of course to see Hope “rage”.

We would like to run one more, 4-week round of the video game group before the end of the year.  If you are interested in enrolling your child for the group, please contact Hope (Hope@academymetrowest.com) or Tim (Tim@academymetrowest.com) for more information. Additionally, we are interested in making the Video Game Group an ongoing and more regularly scheduled part of our program. Stay tuned for more information!

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