By STEPHANIE OBLEY
A new therapeutic tool for helping children deal with divorce may appeal to kids in a way nothing else will – as a computer video game. Earthquake in Zipland debuted last year and is a quest-style game that follows the struggles of Moose, the son of the King and Queen of Zipland, a small paradise island held together by a zipper. An earthquake rips the island in two, leaving the king and queen on separate islands, and Moose sets out to build a new zipper to bring the islands – and his parents – back together. He also has a journal to record his thoughts and feelings throughout the game.
The game – designed for ages 7 to 13 – doesn’t mention divorce directly but Moose’s struggles parallel those experienced by children during and after a divorce. The game reaches children on their level, said Chaya Harash, President and CEO of Zipland Interactive and also a family therapist for the past 25 years. “The main concern is how to reduce the pain of the children as much as possible,” she said. “That’s their language, playing video games. It was a challenge to combine a serious issue like divorce with a video game.”
Research from fields like psychology, and family and child therapy, were incorporated into the game, Harash said. First, problems faced by children going through divorce were considered – guilt that they caused the divorce, anger, fear, loss, loyalty to their parents. Then episodes of the game were built around those issues. “There is such a need,” she said. “When I see the effect the game has on children, I think there are so many more that need it.”
The game works best when parents play with the children, Harash said, adding that the ending of the game was a challenge to work out. “On the one hand, Moose has to finish the game, and on the other, he can’t bring his parents back together,” she said. “I think we came up with a very nice solution.”
A SAFE PLACE
Elizabeth Einstein, a marriage and family therapist in New York and author of several books, including “Strengthening Your Stepfamily,” said she has used the game in sessions, sent it home with families and also taken it with her to national workshops to share with other professionals. It offers a place for kids to feel safe and express their feelings, she said.
“Zipland provides a safe place for kids to work through some of their feelings in a subversive atmosphere that is fun,” she said. “Most kids like video games and here’s a very healthy, useful one. The children felt safe practicing in the journal until they had the courage and skills to transfer them to the parents directly.”
She recalled one situation with a 9-year-old boy who had problems with anger after his parents’ divorce and his father’s decision to move in with his girlfriend. Einstein said the boy acted out at school and also with his 3-year-old sister.
“In one emotionally powerful session, he admitted he was scared because he feared he might not be able to stop hurting her and would kill her,” she said. “When we used the Zipland game, he stayed with the journal lots and mostly wrote angry, angry, angry and we processed that intense anger and brought in his father for several sessions too.”
Through the game, the boy learned to talk openly about his feelings, Einstein said, and work through them with his father. The game should also be used in conjunction with other therapy techniques, Einstein said. “Children need to eventually learn skills to speak directly about their feelings,” she said. “My work generally, and ideally, involves various family members together. The game can be used in advance of that touchy work to prepare children who always fear their parents will be mad at them if they tell them how angry they are that their family has changed forever.”
OPENING THE DOOR
Lee Rosen, president and founder of Rosen Law Firm in North Carolina, is always looking for tools to help clients and their children get through divorce. When he learned about Earthquake in Zipland, it seemed natural to start giving it to clients with children in the game’s age range.
It seems to reach children on their level, he said, moreso than books. “If it feels like homework to them they’re more likely to resist,” he said. “With a computer game, it’s something they want to do.”
Rosen said he has heard from parents that the game allows them to broach difficult topics they might not otherwise get their kids to talk about. “It helps to open the door to conversation,” he said. “That seems to be the most appealing part of using the game.”
Harash herself went through divorce more than 18 years ago. She has two children, one who she said was open to discussing the divorce and one who was reluctant. Since the game has been developed, she and her now-grown daughter have been able to talk about things they never did before. “It gives us an opportunity to talk about issues we didn’t talk about at 14,” she said. “It was worth it just for that.”
Stephanie Obley worked for several years as an award-winning journalist in Kansas, Florida and Utah, covering everything from crime to the environment. She now lives in South Carolina with her family and writes freelance articles.