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Taking a cue from video games, a new idea for therapy

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It can be fun to fantasize about life imitating a video game. Kelli Dunlap is researching what happens when veterans battling depression do just that.

Dunlap, 26, is developing a mental health treatment program that rewards patients at Washington DC VA Medical Center in the same way video games do: by “leveling up.”

For non-gamers out there, leveling up is one of gaming’s most-basic concepts — the idea that a player has to achieve certain tasks to make progress in the game. Attaining a new level often means that you get stronger or gain access to better stuff.

Dunlap realized that this concept could also help people recovering from injuries or other trauma by making the big goal — recovery — into a series of fun, smaller tasks. Adding a gaming element to the therapy helps people focus on smaller accomplishments, she said.

“It’s about giving yourself some kind of way to make it through without getting bogged down, as opposed to something big and terrible,” said Dunlap, who is a doctoral candidate at the American School of Professional Psychology. “One of the biggest struggles is motivation. Video games do that really, really well [and] keep you trying even though you know what you’re doing is difficult.”

She is now testing that theory in the mental health clinic of the veterans hospital where she holds weekly meetings with a small group of veterans who are dealing with issues such as depression, often while rehabilitating from physical injuries as well.

The program emphasizes building emotional resilience among the soldiers. Early in the program, she said, showing up can earn someone a point. “Showing up, in recovery, is the biggest step,” she said. “At first, if you show up you get a point. Then there are weekly challenges.”

As patients progress, they have to do more to attain the next level and gain the next reward, as players often have to do in games. The challenges might be as simple as doing something you enjoy during the week.

“That may sound very basic, but in some cases the ability to do anything and derive joy out it can be a challenge,” Dunlap said.

Recovery programs tend to be problem-focused, but Dunlap’s design emphasizes positive, practical goals, said Tracela White, a clinical psychologist at the veterans hospital.

“We’re always trying to figure out creative ways to get our veterans back to the things they enjoy,” White said. “This program has activities they can practice in their day to day lives.”

So far, the veterans have responded well to the program, said Dunlap. “I was nervous because it was new for them,” she said. “But they picked it up wherever I led them.”

Dunlap’s work was recently recognized by Twitch, the gaming community that specializes in broadcasting matches and tournaments. She was one of five recipients to receive $10,000 scholarships from Twitch and the computer-maker Alienware.

“Kelli was particularly interesting because she’s doing interesting things with higher-ed and academics, applying the gaming world to larger psychological questions,” said Matthew DiPietro, Twitch’s vice president of marketing.

Dunlap said that she is motivated to find positive applications for video games, which are better known for violent content than therapeutic applications. “The ‘common knowledge’ is that video games are bad for you,” she said. “But it’s not that games are bad for you — it’s that people with a certain personality set-up tend to misuse the game.”

© The Washington Post Company