Game Use In Children's Therapy Needs Further Study

February 13, 1997

"Currently, empirical validation of these games is scarce," said John McNamara, professor of psychology and co-author of a recent study on the use of board games in therapy. "They are in widespread use and we don't know much about them."

Using board games as a therapeutic tool became popular after teachers discovered games could facilitate learning in the classroom because children are attracted to and enjoy games, McNamara said. The variety of games used in therapy range from traditional board games such as checkers to specialized games targeted at specific therapeutic problems. Different theoretical approaches to therapy also influence how board games are used, McNamara said.

"For instance, a psychoanalytic therapist may view board games as a means for fantasy and wish expression, whereas a behaviorist would be more likely to use games to teach new behaviors," he said.

The lack of studies of game playing in therapy may mean therapists are not using the games beneficially, according to McNamara, who said time spent playing games may be better spent on other therapeutic activities.


"Games might offer clients a mechanism through which to avoid dealing with uncomfortable emotional issues," he said. "By focusing primarily on the process of playing the game, the child may succeed at focusing the attention away from himself or herself."

Many games targeted at solving specific problems are marketed by specialty, mail order catalogues that may make unproven claims, according to McNamara.

"It's usually publishers' self-proclamation that their games work," McNamara said. "There are a wide variety of therapy games and for the most part they've been untested. It's a neglected area of research and we think it needs to be looked at."

Until studies are done to determine the effectiveness of games as therapy, McNamara suggests therapists closely examine games before using them in a therapeutic setting.

"Look carefully at what you buy and do your own personal analysis," McNamara said. "We are asking therapists to make a closer examination of the games than has been done previously. Don't uncritically accept the proposition that board games are always useful in child therapy."

McNamara and graduate student Abigail Matorin co-authored the review, published in a recent issue of International Journal of Play Therapy.

Contact: John McNamara, 614-593-1082, Written by Dwight Woodward, 614-593-1886,

Ohio University

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