Two Columbine-style (tm) school massacres have recently been thwarted. Media reports of near-tragedies like these usually mention a connection to violent video games. But in Teens Who Hurt: Clinical Interventions to Break the Cycle of Violence, two Family Therapy scholars, Ken Hardy and Tracy Laszloffy, warn away from blaming simple environmental factors like video games and guns. Rather, they trace the roots of teen violence to four things: devaluation, erosion of community, dehumanized loss, and rage. It seems to me that off-the-shelf video games, specifically in the MMORPG format, directly address three of these conditions in a positive and possibly therapeutically beneficial way.
MMORPGs in the EverQuest tradition (characters, classes, leveling, quests, grouping) directly help a violent teen in three ways:
Devaluation: A teen who feels worthless in real life can, in a synthetic world, achieve great things: become a powerful wizard, amass a virtual fortune, complete vast and difficult quests. MMORPGs are designed to allow anyone to succeed if they put in the time.
Erosion of community: A teen who is isolated in real life can, in a synthetic world, join a genuine and vibrant human society that operates without preconceptions about who they are. Genuine frinedship and mentoring are availbale there on a 24/7 basis.
Rage: A teen coping with anger in real life can, in a synthetic world, release the anger through rituals of harmless combat and violence, much of it in teams. Such release can be both timely and socially appropriate.
These three map to three Bartle categories: Achiever, Socializer, and Killer.
What about dehumanized loss? The Bartle type "Explorer" does not fit. I would think that someone suffering from loss, someone who has been prevented by social mores from grieving and feeling sorrow, might be assisted by the right kind of NPC mentoring. There is a hint of this in EQ-type games, as when a warrior returns throughout his career to the same NPCs who started him on his path. Many quests and storylines address loss. More could probably be done with this.
We have previously debated the relationship of the person to the avatar. Dan Hunter had a character leveled for him and felt uncomfortable playing it. Nate Combs thinks about the avatar as an intelligent agent. Josh Fairfield wonders about avatars as placeholders for a story. My own experience is that those seeking restoration in secondary worlds are comfortable extending themselves into their characters, more or less fully. It makes no sense to keep distance when there's solace in immersing. And where others might find it difficult to roleplay over long periods, for restorative purposes some level of self-forgetting is easy to do, almost unconscious.
There are design issues. Most people play MMORPGs for fun. Fun-seekers probably have different playstyle preferences from those experiencing MMORPGs as a therapeutic technology. Worlds created for therapeutic purposes should not allow players to puncture one another's thought-spaces, and they should be heavy on good NPC mentoring.