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The Use of Video Games to Teach Social Skills

They Aren’t Just a Waste of Time

by Scott Allen, Psy.D., Director of Psychological Services, CLE Austin

Video games can teach social skillsLike it or not, the appearance and methodology of socialization are changing in our kids and young adults. As technology becomes a greater part of our everyday lives, it makes sense that our everyday practices may be influenced both negatively and positively by its tremendous pull. Video games were first popularized when I was a young child; however, they were an activity that was by and large used in free time while parents encouraged their children to engage in more “constructive activities,” such as social play.

These days, gaming is more intricately entwined with socialization. All “next generation” systems have modalities to play remotely with other users, game publishers are taking advantage of social gaming by publishing more games that give clear advantages to people who play with others, and more group-based games are being published. The boundary between socialization and gaming is becoming less and less clear, and we as professionals and parents need to evolve along with technology if we truly want to impact students on the autism spectrum or with other special needs in a positive way.

As a clinician who has been working with students with autism-spectrum disorders and other executive-functioning difficulties for over ten years, I strongly believe in the power of utilizing student interests in order to teach new or difficult skills. On some occasions, it may be as simple as offering a few minutes of time on an iPad as a reinforcer after a period of hard work. On others, the gaming experience may be utilized as a tool to teach new skills. This use of gaming serves not only as a rapport-building tool, but it also increases students’ motivation in the interaction and improves the relatability of the clinician or provider.

Here are some examples of ways that video games can be utilized in social-skills training.

1. Turn Taking.

Taking turns at video games teaches social skillsChildren and young adults with autism and other disabilities (not to mention neurotypical individuals) often struggle with turn taking during conversations and games. It doesn’t take an expensive program or game to work on turn taking; there are numerous free and/or cheap applications to suit this need. One of my favorite strategies is to use the game Angry Birds as a cooperative game. Participants can pick a different type of bird on each level and they must switch off to perform each bird’s respective actions. Using a video game for this purpose increases student interest and investment in the activity.

2. Teamwork and Cooperation.

My personal favorite game for this purpose is Rock Band. This game is a simulation of a musical group complete with electronic microphones, drums, guitars, bass guitars, and keyboards. This game is a creative way for students to work together and to realize how their individual parts fit into the “big picture” of the group. As a clinician or instructor, you can lead the group, encouraging students to try different instruments and to encourage each other.

3. Problem Solving.

One of the beauties of video games is that they encourage users to stretch the imagination, often forcing the player to solve problems in unusual or unique ways. A great game for problem solving is Scribblenauts. In this game, the player simply types the name of an object or animal and a visual representation of that word magically appears on the screen. The game presents scenarios where players must be creative in order to solve problems and there may be multiple solutions for each one. For example, if your character needs to reach a high location, he can make a ladder, stairs, hot air balloon, or even a jetpack. When I have multiple players, I like to set up “Death Matches” where two players make two characters (e.g., a bear vs. a snake, a cowboy vs. a werewolf) and see who wins in an epic battle. It requires tons of creativity to defeat a bloodthirsty, flying kraken.

4. Healthy Competition.

The best series that I can think of to work on competitiveness is Super Smash Brothers. This game fits into the easy to learn and difficult to master category. Although it features many of the typical Mario characters and others from the world of Nintendo, they are pitted against each other in an epic battle that can only have one winner. Even the best players will have the opportunity to work on frustration at some point because random objects and stages can add a degree of unpredictability to the game.

5. Interpersonal Communication.

Playing video games can teach social skills to gamers.A great number of games, such as the World of Warcraft series involve tasks or quests involving multiple people with different roles. One character type simply cannot complete every task or every goal in the game. There are simpler games that can fit the same purpose, such as Super Mario 3D World or any of the Lego games, where there are clear advantages of healthy communication among players.

I certainly don’t believe that video games are the only way to teach social skills; however, they can be wonderful tools for individuals who are difficult to motivate or who have strong interests in gaming. If anything, I view video games as an extension of the principles of incidental teaching, a teaching methodology that involves finding opportunities in play to teach new skills.

Simply introducing games in social skills training can increase rapport, improve communication (games often take the defenses down), and they assist students with seeing the relevance of the skills that they are learning. It also adds an experiential component to teaching that is likely to contribute to faster skill acquisition, application, and generalization. I strongly believe that if we look hard enough, we can find opportunity to teach in any activity. Based on this principle, I strongly encourage you to “game on.”

Newsletter Articles – February 2016

Joan Green

Joan Green is a licensed and certified Speech-Language Pathologist, and founder of Innovative Speech Therapy. She is a nationally recognized expert on assistive technology and author of several books, including The Ultimate Guide to Assistive Technology in Special Education: Resources for Education, Intervention and Rehabilitation, 2nd Edition. I recently had the opportunity to discuss the benefits of assistive technology and new developments in the field with Joan.

Joshua Ruiz of CLE Davie

Assistive Technology is changing the world for individuals with special or diverse needs. With advanced technology vastly improving, individuals-including neurotypicals-use this modern, advanced technology for everyday tasks such as phone calls, messaging, email, Facebook, and Twitter. But some individuals with disabilities have a hard time using technology. One of my friends, Abel, has cerebral palsy and he is not able to communicate or move at all. He uses a special device that has a button on the head of his chair. When he moves his head he is able to communicate with others but it is also difficult for him to use this equipment. He uses all of his effort to control this system, which is incredible.

Savannah at CLE Costa Mesa

Assistive technology is a tool used by many individuals in the world, which has an astounding amount of advantages to the support it provides. Not only does this technology serve useful to the general public, but especially the autism spectrum population. It allows individuals on the spectrum to communicate with those around them by assisting them in their communication and socialization skills. It also helps with many executive functioning aspects such as organizing, planning, problem solving, etc. Assistive technology is truly an amazing platform that serves multiple purposes throughout people’s lives.

The pros and cons of video games and their impact on social development.

Parents, have you ever walked in while your child was playing a video game and thought, “They are just wasting brain cells?” Students, as gamers have you ever thought, “I just have to make it past this level,” and refused to give up until you beat it? Are there arguments for both of these scenarios being reasonable? We are going to look further into the world of gaming.

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