Psychotherapy Bulletin

Psychotherapy Bulletin

The Game of Strife

A Means of Coping for Psychology Doctoral Students

Psychology graduate students face many challenges, balancing academic demands, field placement requirements, often financial limitations, and the responsibilities of personal life. These competing obligations can often lead to burnout, defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity” (2018, para. 1). A study from RealNetworks, Inc. (2006) showed that games help combat stress by lowering blood pressure, increasing speed of response time, boosting immune system, improving memory formation and cognitive skills, and protecting against cognitive decline (Health Fitness Revolution, 2015).

Considering the wealth of benefits provided by playing board games, encouraging students in psychology doctoral programs to play board games is a valuable investment in student health. This paper will outline how to create a board game specifically designed for psychology doctoral students to attract them to play more board games.

Literature Review

Playing games with peers can come so naturally that it is easy to overlook the numerous social and psychological benefits of engaging in imaginative play. Board games have been played since 5000 BC, the first using dice made out of painted or carved rock, and some of the oldest games known to have been played by humans are still played today, such as Senet, thought to be developed around 3100 BC in pre-dynastic Egypt (Brunscheen-Cartagena, 2019; Johnstone, 2012). Despite games having a long history in human culture, it is only recently that the social benefits of playing games have begun to be studied systematically.

For example, Salur, Ala-Ruona, Uçar, and Eren (2017) have offered that games involving metaphors may be an effective avenue for improving emotional processing, particularly if the emotions are related to content or experience that individuals would rather not or cannot discuss verbally. The results of such research has even lead to new forms of therapy such as Nature Therapy (Berger & Lahad, 2010), which involves key mechanisms of engaging in play and creativity and has been shown to facilitate coping with new academic environments. According to a review by Granic, Lobel, and Engels (2013), early developmental psychologists including Vygotsky and Piaget proposed that imaginary play provides children with the opportunities to formulate and test hypotheses about the world as they reproduce real-world problems and attempt to problem solve for their own enjoyment or to abate negative feelings. Recent neuroscience studies have found that among rats, play fighting is associated with increases in chemical growth factors in the orbital frontal cortex which is highly involved in the coordination of social activities (for review, see Pellis & Pellis, 2007).

Importantly, playing a game can be a valuable means of relieving stress. As it is the professional role of the mental health therapist to help patients reduce stress, and as therapists are repeatedly exposed to stress in their line of work, therapists and student-therapists should consider using games as a powerful therapeutic tool, with their clients, and in their own lives.

Graduate school is an integral part of a psychologist’s professional development. Graduate students are asked to balance both their professional and personal lives while performing well academically and clinically. One of the most common stressors that negatively impacts a graduate student’s training is the experience of a loss or debilitating illness. Stratton, Kellaway, and Rottini (2007) suggest that while a loss or debilitating illness can be a source growth, it can also interfere with a graduate student’s training. Other stressors include financial hardship, interpersonal relationships, and navigating constant transition.

The pre-doctoral internship year for future psychologists is marked by a number of transitions, with the internship being one of the most stressful transitions professionally. For many years, research has explored the impact of this developmental stage and the unique challenges pre-doctoral interns face. Kaslow and Rice (1985) described pre-doctoral internship year as “professional adolescence” where interns are required to balance their training with new professional responsibilities and autonomy. It is therefore important for training staff to consider the distinct type of stress that interns face and ways in which they can be supported. Because psychological practice can lead to compassion fatigue and burnout, self-care is highly important in managing these symptoms; Bettney (2017) explored the idea that frequently shared characteristics of people in helping professions are likely to lead to burnout, as well as the many roles (personal and professional) that students, interns, and professionals often play. Therefore, it is critical to implement self-care well in order to practice effectively.

Turner and colleagues (2005) reference Norcross (2000), who compiled a list of “consensual self-care strategies,” commonly used self-care strategies as well as recommendations for interns on internship. Some of these include “recogniz[ing] the hazards in conducting psychotherapy,” cultivating a lifestyle of self-care, and finding joy and peace in one’s practice. Turner et al. (2005) also noted that from a systemic viewpoint, it would be beneficial for internship sites to examine self-care from various theoretical orientations, and each site should attempt to implement forms of self-care that play on the strengths of the sites themselves.

The idea of using a board game to educate, reflect the experience of a chosen profession, and genuinely be entertaining is not a new one: Andrew and Andrew (1979) created a patent for a board game with these particular goals in mind. The goal was to create a complex system relating to medical practice, while also creating a game that “simulates the life of an intern in a large teaching [sic] hospital.” As it is widely known that board games can be used for educational purposes, creating a game that would reflect the working experience of a psychology intern would likely be highly beneficial for teaching, offering a source of entertainment, and reflecting the experience in a way that could be easily identifiable for trainees who may want the sense of a shared experience. If play and creativity could be fostered in graduate students or groups of graduate students together, their adjustment to and functioning in the various roles and hurdles of graduate school and internship could be enhanced

Description of the Game

The Game of Strife is based on the popular children’s game, The Game of Life™ (GOL), co-developed in its modern form by Reuben Klamer and Bill Markham for Milton Bradley in 1963. Games are a great way to relieve stress and cope with the pressures of life, and can be a good way to practice life lessons and make choices about life milestones in a low-risk, imaginary environment. The Game of Strife highlights the trials and tribulations of the graduate school experience. In particular, this game focuses on doctoral psychology programs. Doctoral psychology programs are particularly challenging, as they require a high level of intellectual and emotional engagement and exploration. During graduate school, students face a number of life milestones and challenges, which are incorporated in the Game of Strife.

The original game pieces are adapted in the Game of Strife to reflect doctoral psychology program students’ experiences. Graduate students commute in a number of ways. In the Game of Strife, players can choose from a number of transportation methods including a car, walking shoes, bike, bus, train, skateboard, motorbike, or electric scooters. Each playing piece will have holes to place human and animal figures that become part of the player’s family during the game. All human figures will be the color purple. In addition to human figures, there will be cats and dog figures to add to students’ families during the game, similar to children being added to families in the original. At certain points in the game, players will be cued to choose a housing card, a loan disbursement card, and a practicum or internship placement card. These cards will indicate type of housing and the rent or mortgage amount, loan amounts, practicum or internship site.

The game board is comprised of a path that leads to the ultimate goal of graduating from the player’s doctoral program. At the beginning of the game, players can choose to complete a master’s program route and borrow money, or begin working and earn money before both paths converge back to the “Start Doctoral Program” point. The path then continues on to the end point of graduation. Players will spin a dial that tells them how many spaces to move forward on each turn, and each spot on the game board will have different graduate school and life events that occur during play. Examples include the following: Be a teaching assistant for a class, free food from school event, adopt a dog, go on a good date, pass competency exam, apply for practicum, propose doctoral paper or dissertation, start a remediation plan, get in a car accident, get divorced, bad Tinder date, health emergency, forget to file FAFSA.

Players will accrue loans and earn income throughout the game when they land on “Strife” places on the board. When players land on a “Strife” place on the board, they grab a “Strife” tile, which they will not flip over until the end of the game. On the back of the “Strife” tiles are either income the player earns or debt they accrue. Players can also get income when they pass “Loan Disbursement” landmarks on the boar, and they have to pay rent or pay back loans when places on the board indicate to do so. At the end of the path, players will apply for internship and choose an internship card. When they reach the end and graduate from their psychology doctoral program, the game is over. At this point, players will total up their loans and income, and whoever has the most money and least amount of loans wins.

Discussion and Recommendations

The Game of Strife concept was created to help doctoral psychology students de-stress, practice self-care, and to foster positive social interactions with their fellow students. However, it is important to note the limitations of this game. The game includes content that some may find distressing, such as “working with a suicidal client” or “family emergency,” as steps in the game. This may have the opposite effect than what was intended; students may find the experience of playing the game to be negative, stressful, and potentially emotionally painful. When playing this game, it would be most beneficial for players to be aware of how such content may affect others in the room and be understanding if a player wishes to take a break or leave the game.

Another limitation is that this game is specifically designed for doctoral psychology students. In the future, a game that is more generalizable and applicable could be created so that master’s-level psychology students and perhaps other types of mental health graduate students (e.g., social work students, forensic psychology students) could also play. This game could be used as a model to create similar games in other areas of graduate study, such as law or business, and provide a positive and validating experience for students in those fields. It should also be noted this game was created using the experiences of students from a small group of graduate programs. The experiences included in this game may not reflect and may exclude experiences students in other programs have had. Future games could be created by individuals from a wider variety of graduate programs, and it would be important to include students from a wider range of multicultural backgrounds.

Finally, like the original version, built into The Game of Strife is the assumption that “winning” means accumulating the most money. This is a convenient way to tally points at the end of play; however, it is ironic that a game designed to promote self-care ultimately focuses on finances as the sole measure of success. It is likely that many students attracted to the field of psychology in the first place would find this counterintuitive. Perhaps future versions of the game could include emotional well being, life satisfaction, or similar concepts as objectives at least equal to having the most accumulated wealth at the end of the game.


This has been a playful consideration of the benefits of developing a board game to reflect the experiences of doctoral graduate students, and to help them navigate the twists, challenges, and rewards of their training. It is important to also recognize, that, although the game ends at graduation, for most doctoral-level graduates, their careers are just beginning.

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Salwa is a fourth year Clinical Psychology Psy.D. student at the Graduate School of Professional Psychology, University of Denver. She moved from New York City to Denver three years ago and has fallen in love with the Mile High City. Clinically, Salwa is passionate about working underserved and vulnerable populations, paying special attention to multicultural issues.

Cite This Article

Chowdhury, S., Dousarkissian, I., Fritze, T., Grego, A., Gothro, A., Hyde, K., … Taylor, M,. (2019). The game of strife: A means of coping for psychology doctoral students. Psychotherapy Bulletin, 54(2), 13-18.


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