Gaming mental health

• ‘Nerd therapist’ Mike Keady.

WHILE schools and parents often fret over fandoms and video games, counsellor Mike Keady is using games like Minecraft and Dungeons & Dragons to connect with clients and help them open up about mental health.

Mr Keady is known as “the Nerd Therapist”, and has been practising for about three years. 

Based in Clarkson, the 31-year-old found his niche after seeing many other counsellors in online groups confused or concerned about popular franchises like Fortnite or Pokemon. 

“There was a lot of posts like, ‘what’s Pokemon about? Because I work with kids now and a lot of them are into Pokemon and I don’t know what it is’,” Mr Keady says, and the replies were discouraging.

“And one of the top comments, and one of the most agreed-with comments, was: ‘It is an animal fighting game marketed towards children’.

“And that’s incredibly disingenuous… Pokemon is about friendship, and the passion of ambition in life.” 

The online exchange prompted him to start a blog called the “Pop Culture Competency Project,” providing resources about popular fandoms so counsellors could brief themselves on the common cultural phenomenon. 

He wrote the blog anonymously at first, over “that worry that it wasn’t professional” to be a therapist who plays video games and is familiar with the details.

About a month went by. “And I hadn’t received one negative comment online, which is kind of cool, because the internet’s a terrible place, especially in the comment sections!”

The anonymous blog impressed one potential employer so much that they sent Mr Keady a job offer.

He couldn’t take it at the time, but it prompted Mr Keady to embrace the Nerd Therapist role, and he would go on to incorporate both video games and tabletop games like D&D into counselling sessions alongside more common therapeutic approaches like Dialectical Behaviour Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. 


There’s a long history of research into the effectiveness of incorporating video games or tabletop games into treatment. 

Therapists found it useful to play checkers with clients in the 1950s. In the 1980s and early 90s researchers found D&D sessions were a good way to explore identity and emotional development with clients roleplaying out fantasy characters and solving problems in a small group. And the first Nintendo console had only been out for a couple of years before therapists were asking “Can the Mario Bros. Help?” – the title of a 1991 article by psychologist James E Gardner who found games useful for building rapport and exploring emotions. 

Another surge of research emerged in the past 10 years with the soaring popularity of Minecraft, a collaborative Lego-like video game.

Mr Keady has found roleplaying games especially useful for socially anxious people wanting to build social skills, and as a way to talk with clients about their needs and aspirations, untangled from discussing what they enjoy about roleplaying as a knight or a wizard. 

“I see a lot of self discovery,” he says. “I see a lot of self-worth and self-understanding from people that haven’t taken the time to consider: ‘my characters are always healers’, or ‘my characters were always orphans’ or ‘my characters are very conflict-averse diplomats’.

“I’m not saying if you play one character, that’s who you are.

“But every character has an unconscious story to tell… our fantasy says a lot about our wants, and our dreams, and our aspirations.”

But gaming therapy is still rare in Australia, and Mr Keady’s only aware of a couple of practitioners.

Even some professional therapists are still not very welcoming about fandoms and intense interests, and some of Mr Keady’s clients have come to him after a bad experience. 

“I get a surprising number of young people whose therapists just don’t know how to handle it,” Mr Keady says.  

Sometimes it’s “just casual disinterest… when you’re working with young neurodivergent people who are sensitive to that sort of thing, they can pick up on that slight body language”.

But other clients have had experience with past counsellors who “are more aggressively invalidating, and have even sent judgmental emails to parents” warning them off video games.

That invalidation can be crushing for people whose interests mean a lot to them, and Mr Keady says a lot of his work with those clients is “about rebuilding trust in therapists”.

He sees in Pokemon something common to a lot of fictional worlds that are especially popular among young people, like Beyblade or Yu-Gi-Oh: These are worlds where young peoples’ interests are taken seriously and encouraged by adults.


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