Superhero Therapy: Healing Grief Through Video Games
Author: Janina Scarlet, PhD
Losing a parent can be devastating. Losing a parent and a sibling in one week can be excruciating. That is exactly what happened to “Joe” (not real name), after his father and brother both died a few days apart, following a car crash.
Joe, like most individuals, was not previously taught how to label, understand, and process his emotions. Hence, after these tragedies the grief made it extremely challenging for him to return to college. Joe started having paralyzing panic attacks, which often prevented him from leaving his house.
Joe came to see me because I specialize in Superhero Therapy—a way of incorporating popular culture elements into evidence-based therapy, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and others in order to help clients to become their own version of a superhero in real life. Using Superhero Therapy, providers can use terms that the client understands and can relate to. Examples can be from traditional superheroes, as well as Harry Potter, Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and video games. They work together to help clients better understand therapy skills while increasing their commitment to practicing these skills.
When we first met, Joe was both unwilling and not ready to discuss his family tragedy. Since Joe was an avid gamer, we began by talking about video games. Joe disclosed that he enjoyed World of Warcraft, Skyrim, and Final Fantasy Games. In discussing these games, Joe realized that he enjoyed playing games in which he was able to take on a quest and help others.
As homework, I assigned him to play Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons—a video game which provides the player with an experiential exercise of going through several losses of loved ones. The game can be thought of as a long guided meditation, or a visualization exercise in which the person experiences the losses and connections with loved ones through multiple modalities—visual, auditory, as well as tactile and motor—through using one’s hands to play as different characters. I invited Joe to spend as much or as little time playing this game as he wanted.
When I saw him the following week, he said that he finished the game. He stated that he cried through all of it, and that the loss of the characters in the game allowed him to be able to access his own grief. He also stated that he had no panic attacks during the week following playing the game.
Joe used the game to discuss what it was like for him to lose his father and brother. Through the lens of the game he was able to rediscover his own core values and a sense of purpose after this tragedy.