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Promoting student well-being through serious games

Let’s play: what comes to mind when you think of the word “game”?

Some people will think of their childhood. Others, of board games and fun evenings with friends. Most probably, the majority of us will think of video games. My point is, gaming can mean different things to different people based on their previous experience. Quick confession: I used to be a simmer so I think of green plumbobs.

Even so, I get it. Every now and then, teachers or parents are warned through yet another sensational news story about the negative side effects of video games.

But what if I told you that there is another way of thinking about games? What if I told you that sometimes this focus on the “bad” story completely overshadows the good aspects of gaming?

In fact, that we are not thinking enough about games. Specifically, serious games, whose main goal is not to entertain, but to help boost learning, promote healthy behaviors, and even improve mental health. And while we have already discussed the benefits gamification can bring to classroom, today we are exploring a whole different and positive story about gaming and its many applications that can help children cope with difficult situations such as school refusal, and even improve academic performance.

Why serious games?

Using games/gamification to teach is nothing new. All the way back to the 18th century, modern education pioneer Friedrich Fröbel argued that the act of playing can reveal the inner experiences of a child, which can in turn help educators better understand their students. As an aside, Fröbel is the guy that basically invented the concept of "kindergarten" and the one who first proposed that children have their own unique needs and abilities, which gives him +1,000 credibility points in my book.

Serious games have been used in different fields such as defense, science and education to teach new skills. For example, there are flight simulations, games that teach Maths, or ones that train teams how to work in emergency situations.

Since then, researchers have found games to be effective in reducing different symptoms related to anxiety or other mood disorders, as well as promote healthy habits. That is because the games are based on tried and tested intervention methods such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which has proven to be very effective in changing behaviors and unhelpful thoughts. In fact, games can take it a step further and actually teach people how to understand their emotions as well as express them in a positive way, while in a safe environment.

Of course, when applied to the classroom environment, serious games can also be used to reduce symptoms such as school refusal, or disruptive behavior during lessons, and offer a way to learn different coping mechanisms, including breathing skills to induce a sense of calm during a stressful exam period.

In fact, researchers have also pointed out other benefits such as improving academic performance, cognitive competencies and self-efficacy, which can also help students be more engaged at school and increase their confidence in their own abilities.

Know the game

Of course, not all serious games are the same or have the exact same outcomes. Below you can find a list of different types of games, as well as examples of how they work.

  1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-based games

    CBT-based games are usually created by interdisciplinary teams of psychologists and game developers. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a goal oriented intervention method that aims to change maladaptive behaviors. For example, practicians have used it to tackle school refusal by breaking down the beliefs that lay behind it, such as separation anxiety-related thoughts, which affects 4% of children. In turn, students can learn how to cope in different situations, which can be tricky given that it takes practice to learn how to change patterns of behavior and emotional regulation.

    As such, a big advantage could be the fact that it engages them in a fun game that makes them practice the newly acquired coping skills, which can be challenging to do even for an adult. However, it can also be a timely intervention option since the lack of access can hinder prevention or treatment of various mental health issues. For example, a game can immerse children in a specific fantasy world, in which they can conquer their fears and gain points as they master different relaxation techniques.

  2. Biofeedback-based games

    Biofeedback is a helpful method in identifying physiological changes that happen as a result of our emotions. Players usually have a sensor attached, for example, on their fingertips, which actually measures their responses while in-game. A game can reward them for staying calm under pressure and for generally mastering their responses, with the added benefit of actually seeing how they react in different situations.

    Perhaps the biggest benefit of biofeedback is the newly discovered awareness of their reactions, which can teach them more about their emotions and how to balance them. In turn, this can also work well for adolescents, who are at a developmental stage in life in which it is beneficial to practice emotional self-regulation.

  3. Brain training games

    The so called brain training games promise to improve memory, including working memory, and generally improve cognitive skills. However, before jumping on the bandwagon, teachers and parents should know that it might not work for every student and should be careful in selecting a game as the research behind them does not offer very solid evidence. In spite of that, brain training seems to benefit children with certain learning disorders, language disorders and can be an aid in supporting treatment that is supervised by a professional.

  4. Exergames

    Well, you might be thinking: what does exercise have to do with the topic? And yes, children can very well play during recess or use that time without a clear goal in mind. However, there is mounting evidence that exercise benefits extend well beyond physical well-being. In fact, exercise can improve academic outcomes, focus, visual-spatial skills and boost your mood.

    What’s more, playing a game makes them forget that it is actual exercise, especially for students that are not very motivated to do so. Plus, for the more self-conscious students, it is a stepping stone into being more active since it makes them focus on the actual activity and less on their appearance during the game.

  5. VR games

    VR games help us explore scenarios that are really close to how we perceive the real world, making it a very useful tool for both research and therapy. Virtual reality does much more than enhance the experience of a game, in fact, it has been used to treat certain phobias such as the fear of flying, post-traumatic stress, and as an aid in intervention for various other disorders.

    One interesting application could be the use of VR to simulate a public speaking scenario, which as we all know can be a stressful situation for a student and is a recognized phobia. However, using the safer VR environment as their testing ground, students can gain more confidence as they practice speaking in front of people.

    Read more: 5 useful VR apps for the modern classroom

  6. Entertainment games

    So you might say that we’ve come all this way just to go back to entertainment? Well, yes and no. In fact, as I have mentioned, entertainment can still be a goal of serious games, albeit a secondary one. However, scientists have found that in some cases, the opposite is also true: games that should primarily be fun can also provide a secondary goal. This approach has led them to find out that games such as Tetris, for example, is helpful in crisis intervention as it can reduce involuntary memory flashbacks associated with PTSD.

    In fact, games used for entertainment have a lot of potential for good, from helping children escape just a little bit and use their imagination. Plus, in certain games they can also socialize with other players — a big bonus for shy children and teens. So next time you hear a student speak about their favorite game, maybe it is worth to just listen and understand why they like it so much. Most of the time, you will see that it is much more than pure fun.


Making meaningful games is a very serious challenge. The key aspects of recent developments in this area are: 1. that research shows a lot of promise and 2. there are different types of games with different goals, whether it is improving academic performance, reducing anxiety symptoms or learning a new skill. Overall, changing our mind about games matters if we want to use them for good. To put it this way, we should start taking serious games more seriously!