Video Games Could Hold Untapped Potential in Treatment of Mental Illness

Two middle-aged women smile while holding video game controllers.
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Key Takeaways

  • A new report found mounting evidence that commercial video games, typically used for entertainment, could help alleviate depression and anxiety.
  • Video games tend to be more affordable and accessible than traditional mental health services, which may help more people get essential care.
  • Experts note that video games probably won’t replace traditional therapy, but could be used as a helpful addition.

Think video games are just entertainment? It might be time to take a second look at this popular hobby. A new paper suggests that video games might hold the key to providing affordable, stigma-free mental health treatment around the globe. 

A report published in the journal JMIR Serious Games reviewed research on the impact of commercial video games on depression, anxiety, and other mental health concerns. It found that there’s mounting scientific evidence supporting the potential for video games to improve mental health outcomes, especially for people who can’t access other types of treatment due to cost or location. That could give the world’s 2.7 billion gamers opportunities for major emotional wellness benefits.

Are video games the future of mental health treatment? Here’s what the latest research shows.

Research on Video Games and Mental Health

For this report, researchers from Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software, looked at earlier studies to see whether commercial video games (not just specialized therapeutic games) could fill in existing gaps in mental health treatment, particularly for depression and anxiety.

The research found evidence that video games could help alleviate symptoms of depression, such as the loss of pleasure. The video games “Minecraft” and “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” also fostered social connectedness and reduced loneliness.

Glenn Platt, PhD

Video games provide connection, a critical aspect of mental health, feeling like you are part of a community of like-minded people who value your participation and share your goal within the game.

— Glenn Platt, PhD

“Video games provide connection, a critical aspect of mental health, feeling like you are part of a community of like-minded people who value your participation and share your goal within the game,” says Glenn Platt, PhD, professor of emerging technology and director of the interactive media studies program at Miami University in Ohio. “Isolation, as the authors outline, plays a significant role in anxiety and depressive disorders. The support of a community within a game ecosystem mitigates this.”

Certain video games provide mood regulation benefits, as well. In one study, adolescents who played “Mario Kart” had better emotional regulation skills than peers who didn’t play the game.

Plus, video games could be used as a therapeutic distraction that could help regulate moods, reduce rumination, and even evoke joy.

Studies reviewed by the researchers also showed that video games can help address and treat symptoms of anxiety. In one experiment, people with anxiety who played the tower defense game “Plants vs. Zombies” four times a week for at least a half hour each session experienced better mental health outcomes than those who took medication. In some experiments, video games like “Max and the Magic Marker” were also shown to help prevent elevated anxiety in kids.

“As a licensed professional counselor and personal gamer myself, I am ecstatic to see more research studies and resources such as this one start proliferating around serious psychological discussions,” says Drew Lightfoot, LPC, clinical director at Thriveworks Philadelphia. “The study is correct when it states that video games can be used to help effectively treat anxiety, depression, and social anxiety.”

Commercial Video Games vs. Therapy Games

Overall, the researchers found that commercial video games (typically intended for entertainment) are as effective at providing mental health benefits as bespoke video games designed for therapeutic effects. This may be explained, at least in part, by people’s desire to play commercial video games.

“The problem with bespoke video games (like ‘brain games’) is that they generally aren’t really games. When you are told to click things on a screen to improve your mental health, that is also not a game—it is a therapy,” says Platt.

He continues: “A critical quality of a game—what makes it a game—is that it is played voluntarily. Research has repeatedly validated the importance of intrinsic motivation for effective behavior change, which is what leads us to the critical insight from this article: that people play commercial video games because they want to. And as such, the beneficial aspects of these games (in terms of anxiety and depression) are bestowed as a byproduct of their fun and not the outcome of their game ‘homework.’”

Video Games May Expand Access to Care

In addition to uncovering therapeutic benefits of commercial video games, the report also found that these games could help deliver mental health support where it’s most needed.

The authors note that playing video games is already popular among people age 18 to 54, who also tend to face high rates of mental health issues. As acceptance of the emotional benefits of video games grows, it could help break down stigmas against both gaming and mental illnesses.

“We need to stop inaccurately stereotyping gamers and acknowledge that we are all gamers now,” says Platt. “In much the same way that other media, like books, television, and movies, were not taken seriously when first introduced, society needs to accept video games as a legitimate media that can actually improve the lives of those who engage.”

Access to video games is also free of many of the barriers that prevent people from getting traditional mental health care.

“Video games could offer greater access to adjunctive therapeutic intervention as they can be played at home and at any time, as opposed to traditional care, which typically occurs less frequently and can be prohibitively expensive,” explains Michael L. Birnbaum, MD, assistant professor at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research and program director of the early treatment program at Northwell Health’s behavioral health services.

However, he adds that he doesn’t think that video games will ever be able to replace clinicians—a statement echoed by other experts.

Drew Lightfoot, LPC

Video games can be a great addition to fill the gap, but they're not sufficient enough to be an alternative.

— Drew Lightfoot, LPC

“We should be wary of suggesting that gaming could be an alternative to therapy. Video games can be a great addition to fill the gap, but they're not sufficient enough to be an alternative,” says Lightfoot. “The research documents the accurate representation of the difficulty for individuals to find and afford treatment, but video games should be an add-on—not an alternative.”

Lightfoot adds, “We need to continue to focus and fight for the core of the issue: Both public and private sectors worldwide are struggling to provide affordable, accessible, and effective mental health treatment for their populations.”

What This Means For You

Have you been playing a lot of video games during the pandemic? That might be time well spent, according to a new report, which found that gaming can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. These games help foster feelings of social connectedness, a sense of achievement, and emotional regulation skills, among other benefits.

However, playing video games for mental health benefits should not be considered a replacement for traditional therapy, experts say. While costly, conventional mental health services offer support you may not be able to get through a game. Instead, experts say we need to find ways to make traditional therapy more affordable and accessible so more people can get the care they need.

1 Source
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  1. Kowal M, Conroy E, Ramsbottom N, Smithies T, Toth A, Campbell M. Gaming your mental health: a narrative review on mitigating symptoms of depression and anxiety using commercial video gamesJMIR Serious Games. 2021;9(2):e26575. doi:10.2196/26575

By Joni Sweet
Joni Sweet is an experienced writer who specializes in health, wellness, travel, and finance.