Thirteen-year-old Jess peers at her screen as I hold my trusted tray of different-coloured and textured stones in front of my webcam, trying to get the angle right so that she can see them all and choose one to represent herself.
'The one second from the end.’
I move my finger towards the stone
I think she means.
‘No, the other end.’
'The purple one?' I ask.
'No, the white one.'
'This white one?' I ask, a bit desperately now.
'No! This is rubbish! I don't want to do this!'
'OK.' I put the tray down.
It’s March 2020, the start of lockdown, and it’s Jess’s first session with me. We’re both getting used to working online and I’ve not got the hang of it yet. In person, this activity is a great way to get to know a client and their relationships with the people close to them, as they choose a stone to represent themselves and their family members and place them on a piece of paper. But, in my experience, activities such as this did not translate well to online working
Nearly a decade ago, my MA thesis had been on the subject of engaging children in online mental health services. I knew that online ways of working could create new opportunities, rather than just awkward obstacles. In 2020, I was working with children who were nearly all playing games like Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite, and I started asking them about their gaming life: What characters did they like to play? What was it about the games they liked the most? Who did they play with? How did they feel when they won? How did they feel when they lost?
I started watching the children I worked with playing video games during their sessions, often with a very limited view of their screen as they balanced a mobile phone at the best angle. As I watched, I longed to play the games with them so that we could interact and go on adventures together. I decided to revisit an idea I had had back when I was writing my MA thesis – counselling using the video game Minecraft.
Minecraft is the second most popular video game of all time,1 and currently 140 million people play the game worldwide.2 Minecraft is what’s called a ‘sandbox’ game, which means that, rather than making your way through a fixed series of levels or stages, the game has an open quality, where players have the freedom to roam where they like. There are challenges and monsters to defeat and a climactic battle with a dragon, if you want to play that way. But you can also just explore, or construct elaborate buildings and machines from resources in your ‘inventory’, or farm crops and animals.
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Video game therapy across the globe I started looking into whether any other practitioners used games like Minecraft therapeutically and was excited to find therapists in the US and Australia who did. I joined some fantastic Facebook groups for ‘Geek therapists’ and practitioners working via ‘telehealth’ (which, I discovered, is the term used in the US for working online). There are a growing number of practitioners working creatively online with children in the UK, and the Association of Counselling and Therapy Online (ACTO) recently set up the CYP online steering group, which I’m a part of. I also formed a peer supervision group of practitioners from the US and UK, and took on my first client who wanted to play Minecraft with me.
It’s 14-year-old Robert’s first session with me and we have agreed to play Minecraft together. Robert is recently bereaved and understands that we will be using his sessions in Minecraft to explore his feelings about the bereavement. He’s keen to use the sessions to create a memorial for his family member who died. I’ve created a world just for Robert; an island with enough features – a village, a ravine and caves – for it to be interesting, but not so big that it feels boundary-less. It’s Robert’s world and only he and I have access to it. Access for Robert is limited to his session times, just like my office would be if we were seeing each other in person.
Minecraft worlds are enormous, with the surface area of eight planet earths.3 Therefore, the island becomes like a digital sand tray, and has the boundaries necessary for therapeutic work. It struck me early on when using Minecraft therapeutically how the inventory (made up of multicoloured blocks with different meanings and purposes) was very similar to my tray of multicoloured stones. So, I created an activity in Minecraft that had the same aim as the in-person stone activity I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to use online with Jess.
I ask Robert to find a tree on the island and choose a block from his inventory to represent himself. I say, ‘It’s like making a family tree for you and the people closest to you.’ He instantly gets this idea and starts skimming through his inventory for a block. He selects one and holds it in his hand as he flies high over the island in search of the right kind of tree. ‘Come on,’ he shouts excitedly (we are talking over a separate, secure video platform) and I (as my Minecraft character) follow him as he flies about, scanning the landscape. ‘Here!’ he shouts, as he lands on the biggest tree on the island, with lush green blocks representing its leaves. He places a block at the very top centre of the tree. It’s black with purple specks and it appears to be dripping purple drops. I ask him about the block. He says, ‘This is Crying Obsidian, it’s really strong, but it’s crying. I think it’s sad like me, but it won’t be destroyed.’
I ask him if he would like to choose a block for someone else in his life. He chooses one for his mum and places it right next to him on the tree. It’s a transparent glass block. He says, ‘I always know what my mum is thinking, what she’s feeling. She’s see-though, like glass.’ We talk a little about what it’s like for him to know what his mum is thinking and feeling. Then he starts skimming through his inventory again.
He stands there as his character for a long time, still, and with his head bowed, as if concentrating deeply as he searches the inventory. I watch him silently and also glance at him on the video platform to see how he’s doing. He looks like his Minecraft character, head bowed in concentration. After a while, he selects a block and holds it in his hand. ‘I don’t think I can put her on this tree,’ he says quietly. He starts flying again and finds a smaller tree nearby. He places the block carefully on the tree. He tells me it’s his sister, who died, and says, ‘It’s a cake. She really loved cake and it was her birthday a few days before she died.’
Robert suddenly turns his webcam off and finds an invisibility potion from his inventory and makes his character invisible. I say, ‘It’s hard to be seen right now?’ He says, ‘Yes. Do you want to play hide and seek?’ I say, ‘Of course’, and add, ‘It’s going to be really hard for me to find you when you are invisible.’ Robert laughs and I see the little clouds of smoke from the potion that indicate where he is, moving off into the distance.
At the end of the session, Robert comes back to the tree where he placed the block to represent his sister. I say, ‘I wonder if it was hard for you to put a block here for her?’ He’s quiet as he searches for a while in his inventory and finds a flower, which he places on the ground by the tree, and says, ‘Yes, but I’m happy I found a place for her. I’ll make it nice for her here.
Using Minecraft therapeutically is not without its challenges. Firstly, it’s essential that you are familiar with the signs of unhealthy video gaming and how to support a child or young person struggling with this (The Young Gamers and Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM), offers free training and resources on youth gambling and gaming4). There are also a number of safeguarding and data protection issues to consider, especially when using the game online, as it’s part of the Xbox Network, which is essentially a social media network (I explore these issues in a blog I wrote for parents5). There are also some exciting opportunities to be found through using Minecraft Education,6 the edition used in schools all over the world. And you do need to be fairly confident with technology so that you can troubleshoot issues that come up, such as making sure you and your client are playing on the same version of Minecraft.
I’ve found that the benefits of using the game therapeutically far outweigh the challenges. Firstly, it appeals to children and young people who would otherwise never have accessed counselling. I’m inundated with enquiries from parents, who can see the potential of engaging their child in counselling via Minecraft. This is why I’ve started training other practitioners, as there are more clients than I can take on myself.
Secondly, Minecraft can be used online and in person and can be played across most devices, including smart phones, iPad, Xbox, PlayStation, Switch and PC, so the chances are you, your organisation and your clients will have access to one of these devices.
Playing in the game with a client creates something extraordinary. It enables an interaction that’s unique and takes away the pressure and expectation that can be experienced by young people in the counselling room or via an online video platform. I ask all the young people I work with in Minecraft to create a safe space. Seeing all the different ways they interpret this request and all the different things they create as their safe spaces is so helpful in getting to know them and their situation. For example, a young person struggling with perfectionism might struggle to build a safe space and need to make regular adjustments, as it never feels quite right. Another young person might make their safe space a castle to keep out their enemies, illustrating their fears and defences. Giving a young person the ability to ‘spawn’ mobs (monsters) in the game can lead to a very vivid example of how they’re struggling with internal monsters or external bullies. There is a monster in the game called a ‘whither’ that can be really destructive and, if a young person spawns one of them, it can be a challenge to destroy it.
Situations like this can mean that they ask me to help them with something they’re struggling with in the game, which can help to build rapport. The nature of Minecraft means that the possibilities for adventure, self-expression and emotional learning are pretty much infinite.
Letting go of being the expert
Practitioners often feel that they have to be an expert in playing Minecraft to be able to use it therapeutically, and I want to reassure them that this isn’t the case. You need to know how to ensure your client’s safety and confidentiality and be familiar with the controls and some key commands, but you by no means need to be an expert at playing the game itself. I remember feeling a huge panic the weekend before I saw my first client, convincing myself that I had to practise playing the game all weekend to be good enough. In fact, I’ve found it’s empowering for a young person to feel it’s a domain that they’re the expert in, that they can teach you things about the game and help you out if you get stuck. As the therapist, you need to create a safe and secure environment for your clients when they play Minecraft with you, while also being comfortable with not being in control of everything that happens in the game itself.
I’ve found it’s important to get a sense of how you feel in the game before you start playing it with clients. I’ve noticed that I can get claustrophobic in caves and can experience vertigo on mountains. Despite its blocky graphics, the game has a realism to it that’s visceral. It’s important I’m aware of this so that I can make sense of any feelings and experiences I have in sessions during my supervision, and so that I know what’s ‘my stuff’ and what might be my clients’ stuff.
In May 2021, when I ran my first webinar on using Minecraft therapeutically, I was expecting that about 40 practitioners would sign up. In fact, over 550 registered for the webinar! I think this is a huge indicator of the level of interest and curiosity about this exciting way of working with clients. For me, lockdown unlocked something of enormous value for my practice – a place of infinite opportunities to play and discover together, whether we’re in the same room or miles apart.
This article is not approved by or associated with Mojang or Microsoft
1 Sirani J. Top 10 best-selling video games of all time; 2021. www.ign.com/articles/2019/04/19/top-10-best-selling-video-games-of-all-time (accessed 30 August 2021).
2 Clement J. Number of monthly active players of Minecraft worldwide as of March 2021; 2021. www.statista.com/statistics/680139/minecraft-active-players-worldwide/ (accessed 30 August 2021).
3 Fallon S. How big is Minecraft? Really, really, really big; 2015. www.wired.com/2015/05/data-effect-minecraft/ (accessed 30 August 2021).
4 YGAM www.ygam.org/ (accessed 30 August 2021).
5 Finch E. Essential steps for keeping your child safe when they are playing Minecraft (Bedrock Edition); 2021. www.elliefinch.co.uk/post/essential-steps-for-keeping-your-child-safe-when-they-are-playing-minecraft-bedrock-edition (accessed 30 August 2021).
6 Minecraft Education https://education.minecraft.net (accessed 30 August 2021).