Could Video Games Help Improve our Mental Health?

Video games are a go-to when the media wants to find someone or something to blame for violent crimes, but less well known is the fact that there’s some evidence video games can actually help people with mental health issues.

Today, and largely due to the prevalence of smartphones, gaming has become a national pastime, something that many of us do to relax, switch off or even fill in a quick five minutes during our commute or while waiting for our lunch order to arrive. But what if we could use the availability of video games to help improve our mental health?

At first, this might sound like a pipe-dream. After all, video games are often associated with depression, addiction and aggression, and there is some research to say that certain people with a predisposition for those traits might be more likely to be found playing particularly violent video games than the average person (though actual rises in aggression appear to be linked to game mechanics rather than violent content). Yet, as with most things, there are two sides to every story. Other research has shown that when it comes to improving mental acuity, reflexes and memory, video games and even violent gamescan be powerful tools. There’s also an increasing body of evidence that says, with carefully crafted game mechanics, we can create games that could have a positive effect on our well being.

In fact, scientists are now trying to design games that can specifically combat problems like depression and anxiety. This so-called “neuro-gaming” approach, they say, could supplement therapy and give sufferers a way to feel like they are active in their own treatment while, crucially, also having fun.

For example, Professor Tracy Dennis fromHunter College hasdesigned a game called Personal Zen. The smartphone-based game aims to reduce anxiety through what’s known as attention-bias modification training. What this basically means is that the game subtly teaches the anxious player to ignore threatening feelings (caused in this case by an angry face on the screen) and to instead focus on non-threatening stimuli (a happy face on the screen). By following the positive feelings, the game rewards the player with an achievement. This trains the player to search for the positive stimuli and, crucially, to try to ignore the negatives. There’s a good body of evidence that attention-bias training works for people with high-levels of anxiety, and the app has received quite a bit of praise for what it is trying to do.

This isn’t actually a new idea, though. Avid gamers may recall that over the past few years the game SPARX has been making both headlines and creating a buzz in our medical journals. The online fantasy role-playing game was designed by researchers at the University of Auckland and attempts to teach young people who suffer from depression to manage their condition through carefully crafted quests and in-game dialogue. A clinical trial published in the British Medical Journal in 2012 has shown that not only is the game in some ways as effective as face-t0-face treatment with a trained counselor, it also might be more effective at helping to boost resilience when people are in remission. Obviously, more trials would be needed to assess the game’s long-term treatment power, but those initial tests were very promising.

Many mental health researchers believe that using video games as a treatment for anxiety and depression, and possibly other mental illnesses, is not only a valid goal but an important one and are calling on video game developers to engage with them on this issue to see if they can build these strategies into wider game releases. That’s because many low to middle income families might not be able to afford long-term treatments and therapy programs, while some people could find the prospect of seeing a doctor about their medical health to be a source of anxiety in itself. But a video game might be more accessible and a much less daunting prospect, particularly for younger sufferers.

While researchers stress that these kinds of mental wellness games should never be a replacement for actual counselor-led treatment, it could be that as a form of self-help they offer a first step that might help people in remission manage their health in ways that are enjoyable and, for online games in particular, socially interactive and thus adding a new dimension to the self-care experience.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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