Every time a major Rated M video game title such as Grand Theft Auto V hits store shelves, the mainstream media seems to call up every kind of psychology expert they can find to go on television and state how harmful they believe video games can be. At least one such expert, Pennsylvania counselor and lifelong video gamer Stephen Kuniak, feels instead that video games can actually help those who play them.
"I began gaming around age 3 or 4 with my parents and uncles playing Atari," he said. "I got my first gaming console at around 4 years old. My family was really involved in my gaming. I have fond memories of watching my dad play the original Phantasy Star, even going so far as requesting he play it while I was sick because watching it took my mind off having the flu and made me feel better."
After growing up as part of the first generations of video gamers, Kuniak earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in psychology in 2005, working his longtime experience with video gaming into his accomplishment. In 2008 he did so again, earning a Master of Science in Education for Marriage and Family Therapy with video games helping him lead the way.
"I began to experiment with using video games in the therapy process," he said. "I found that initially it just let the clients feel like they could connect with me more, because I was a gamer like them. Then I started using the video games as a part of therapy. I used Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six 3 as a means of teaching good communication, because it had voice controls through the Xbox headset. I've used Halo's Forge to work with kids in a virtual sandbox, and I've just used the game stories as a part of a narrative therapy."
Kuniak's education continued with video games hand-in-hand in his work.
"My professors at Duquesne were supportive of my joining the doctoral program at the University, and so I enrolled to earn my PhD in Counselor Education," Kuniak added. "My dissertation is an exploration of gamer demographics, personality types, methods of coping, and levels of psychological resiliency. I'm hoping to learn more about gamers as a unique culture, and present this using a full academic research study. As far as I know this has never been tried before. I gathered the data for this study while at PAX East 2013 this past March, and had more than 600 people come to my booth. I gathered as many samples as I could before I ran out of sample packets. I never thought I'd have such a positive response."
In addition to his own experiences with using video games in his own professional work, Kuniak also stated that a lack of true existing research led to him focusing on video gamers more deeply.
"The idea of exploring gamers as a culture came from the many discussions about how exactly to frame the research," he stated. "I kept referencing my opinions around gamers, but couldn't come up with any academic literature that really identified 'what' gamers were. So the idea of identifying the culture as being important and unique came to be."
In a crowded field of psychology experts who seem to take to television airwaves to make only negative claims about the impact of video games on mental health, Kuniak states he has heard feedback from both sides of this topic.
"Some mental health practitioners I talk to think that this is fantastic," he said. "I'll go so far to say that many find this very interesting and feel that it needed to be done. Some practitioners who really don't see the merit in my study. They're unclear of any utility associated with gaming, and they certainly turn their noses up to the notion of gaming being anything more than a useless hobby. The worst was being approached by the training director who asked if I could move on with the topic because someone asked her to'tell that guy to stop talking about all the stupid games.' I was clearly offended by this, and made a point to mention our field being one where growth and exploration of new ideas was primary."
Kuniak also feels that a generational disconnect adds to the often conflicting opinions about video games often covered in both the press and the mental health fields.
"I think that there's just a significant lack of information for the folks who are blatantly dismissive about gaming," he stated. "I find that many professionals simply haven't even considered the alternative arguments. They just go with the mainstream studies, or they're so wrapped up in their own part of the field it's not a consideration. I work hard to try to draw comparisons to the things that they love and feel passionate about. We all have those things that are important to us, but stupid to other people. It becomes easier to discuss gaming when I draw those comparisons."
Kuniak states that he wants to continue researching the potential benefits of video games as a coping and wellness tool, but a lack of funding stands in his way of continuing to learn more and share more information of this type. He has started a crowdfunding project on IndieGoGo to help him continue.
"In this case, literally every dollar counts," Kuniak noted. "If I had everyone please pass on a dollar and then send out the link to everyone they know I would have enough funding to start a program like this. I'm also open to anyone who may know someone in the game industry to pass this information around. I'm hoping that the game developers would have someone interested in supporting me in speaking to the strength of their product. I'm very willing to go to bat for gamers and the gaming community from a mental health perspective. I would love to work with the I want to be able to represent gaming for all of its strengths. I have the credentials to be considered in academic arguments, but I need to have the resources, and the awareness around this work to accomplish these goals."
This interview was conducted by the author and originally published here. Please provide proper author attribution if using portions within any other published source.