Video games have been increasingly viewed as psychosocial threats or precursors to illnesses like addiction. Mental health issues are one the largest growing concerns in America, with one in four adults suffering from a diagnosable disorder according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Video games are often linked to negative physical effects like obesity and violent behaviors, as well was negative psychological effects like aggression, social isolation, and depression. In my research, I decided to focus on several facets relating to mental health in games. There have been studies on the physical rehabilitative methods of video games as well, but this post will focus on cognitive and behavioral issues and rehabilitative methods relating to mental health issues.
Contrary to the conventional belief that video games diminish your physical health, research has found that there are many cognitive benefits to playing games. In studies involving shooter games, spatial and visual processing improved for those who had experience playing shooter games. fMRI’s of gamers versus non-gamers during shooting games also found that gamers allocated their attention and filtered out useless information more efficiently than the control group. Problem solving skills, and enhanced creativity are also cognitive benefits that have been studied and attributed to video game play (American Psychologist).
Despite some studies linking video games to fueling mental illness, mental health professionals have cited video games for having therapeutic benefits for depression, anxiety and other disorders. Video games also hold the potential to teach new forms of thought and behavior which opens a new channel of therapeutic avenues for things like autism spectrum disorders or for finding methods of coping for other illnesses.
Several studies have cited video games as a method to learn relaxation techniques and reducing fears and anxieties. Users have successful exposure to common phobias like spiders, heights or enclosed spaces. One study found that users who feared to drive after an accident reduced their fears by playing driving games. (2008).
One common form of mental illness being combated with video games is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an anxiety disorder where an individual has been exposed to a traumatic event with common symptoms being flashbacks and aggressive or fear-based behaviors caused by triggers. Current methods of treatment are using cognitive behavioral methods and medications, but new methods are using processes of recalling and exposure therapy. Games like “Virtual Iraq” are allowing soldiers to face situations in virtual environments similar to what they faced om combat. It allows soldiers to face what they had dealt with, process it, and begin to cope in response. Based on the studies, fifty percent experienced less flashbacks (The Mary Sue). In a 2009 Oxford and Cambridge study, researchers found that Tetris helped patients as an effective tool against PTSD. Researchers noticed that flashback symptoms were reduced due to players heavily adapted to the objectives of the game (Kime). Games like Tetris, that utilize imprinting, the ability to rapidly learn, in visual-spatial activities have allowed PTSD sufferers to remain focused on the present moment to carry out complex tasks.
Autism is another facet that has been a special area of interest for therapeutic games. Using games for autistic children has shown greater results with many children with an autistic spectrum disorder being on par with control groups. These studies suggest that virtual environments can be a great guided medium to teach about social conventions, and teach distinctions and recognition of objects and facial expressions (2008).
For personality and psychotic disorders, the research has been split both ways as a therapeutic method. One positive study found that medicated schizophrenics completing cognitive tasks in a virtual world was responded positively, suggesting a new method for therapy (2008). This field is new since traditional therapy methods and the root of these disorders are still being studied.
A common study into mental health treatment is attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD has been attributed to genetic and environmental factors, with excessive internet usage being the only form of media to influence ADHD. A study conducted by found that ADHD and inattention symptoms were more prevalent in adolescents who played games for more than one hour a day excessively. This lead to a decrease in overall GPA, negative social effects, but no connection to aggressive or violent behavior (2006).
Many studies have found that children with ADHD often show their hyperactivity while playing video games. Studies with a group of children with and without ADHD found that children with ADHD often did worse if the game involved memory (2008). In one study, children with ADHD were in asked to play an immersive virtual reality simulator in which they had to cross a busy rod. They found that children with ADHD were more dangerous and experienced twice as many collisions. This study suggests that this method of using an interactive game can help identify and shape behaviors for children might be at greater risk of injury. Children with ADHD often find things more appealing in a game form, one study suggests. Using this attraction, biofeedback training on improving behavioral and cognitive elements can be run through computer games (2008).
Another major form of mental health issues is addiction; addiction being one of the most cited modern issues is video game effects. Addiction treatment centers are beginning to admit teenagers and young adults into detox for their dependence on video games. Can games be a form of addiction compared to those in rehab for drugs, sex and alcohol? Compulsive video game playing is like gambling, a common form of addiction, with both being clinical impulse control disorders. Addiction is defined as a behavior that a person needs more of to keep going, and if they don’t get it they become irritable and miserable, according to psychiatrist Michael Brody (WebMD). People addicted to games have shown the same withdrawal symptoms an any other addict: anger, violence, depression, refusing to do things. Unlike substance abuse, the biological component is still uncertain but research suggests that, like gambling, gaming raises dopamine levels. Psychologically, gaming addiction is like other forms of addiction through the use of escapism. Video game addiction research has found that most addicts are males under 30 (WebMD). One researcher has described many of the addicts as people with “poor self-esteem and social problems” often being smart and creative, but not sociable. A history of addiction, regardless the type, might also be a factor.
Depression is another major issue with a large percentage of Americans suffering from some form of depression. Though the origins of this mental health issue are still uncertain, an imbalance of brain activity may attribute to depression. Brain scans indicate that when people play games that most active parts of the brain are the rewards pathway system and the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory. Both of these parts don’t activate when people suffer from depression (TIME). In a study conducted by Carmen Russoniello, PhD, involving six months of simple computer game play, the results showed that the activity can reduce stress, lift player’s moods and balance brain activity (WebMD, Kuchinskas).
Game designer and author Jane McGonigal argues that “gaming is the neurological opposite of depression” (TIME). McGonigal describes games as creating a sense of optimism in players as they engage in creative challenges. For people who may suffer from mental illness, this provides a method of relief and motivation to their lives.
Combating stress is one method of utilizing games as a therapeutic method. In a study involving casual video games, researchers focused on how games could improve mood and decrease stress. Stress has a link to not only mental health, stress and depression are intertwined, but to physical health as well, leading to diabetes and heart disease. In this study, researchers focused on brain-wave activity and heart activity as users played a Tetris-like game, a pinball-like game, or a crossword puzzle game. Monitoring their heart rates, and having participants assess their moods, researchers found that each game had a different effect but ultimately all three contributed to positive mood-lifting effects. Anger, tension and depression subsided in users decreased both perceived and in their brain wave activity (Journal of CyberTherapy & Rehabilitation)
Games can also be used to deal with mental health issues and trauma. McGonigal designed her own game called “Jane the Concussion Slayer” to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic brain injury (TIME). Games like “That Dragon, Cancer” or “Depression Quest” tackle issues like depression and death as a coping method for the designers, but also provided insight to those who may suffer from the same traumas. Some games choose to tackle and portray mental illness in a stereotypical manner. This interesting piece by Polygon comments on how often mental illness and the stigma of it is portray in a dehumanizing manner for those who suffer from it. Like any form of representation, until there are more diverse voices involved, representation is going to be of mixed results. Communities also form to help deal with issues of mental health by uniting people under their passion for games like this article by Kotaku Australia in 2015 describes.
With mental health being one of the largest growing concerns in society, finding ways to tackle these issues is important. Since various forms of electronic media are so ubiquitous in society, studying play and video games is an important topic to research. Though the field is still new and has little findings, there have been positive findings in multiple groups.
“The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” Isabela Granic, PhD, Adam Lobel, PhD, and Rutger C.M.E. Engels, PhD, Radboud University Nijmegen; Nijmegen, The Netherlands; American Psychologist, Vol. 69, No. 1.
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Wilkinson, N., Ang, R. P., & Goh, D. H. (2008). Online video game therapy for mental health concerns: a review. International journal of social psychiatry, 54(4), 370-382.