9 Times Video Games Were Great for Mental Health
by Marijam Didzgalvyte and Jish Newham
22 March 2017
There is a common misconception that video games induce loneliness, or a symptom of disconnection. But although games are often blamed as a cause of mental illness, numerous studies have shown they are often a remedy, more than anything. Video games are therapeutic for children with chronic illnesses, they provide pain relief, keep one happy in old age, help dyslexic people read better – we can go on and on.
To put some meat on the bare bones of scientific evidence, here are seven personal stories of moments when video games brought a transformational effect to someone’s everyday life and made it manageable to deal with the consequences of suffering from mental health problems.
1. Pokémon GO!
The Pokémon GO! craze that engulfed the world in July 2016 seemed to bring endless outrage from technophobes – how dare these kids have fun while looking at screens?! The truth is that the alienation we sometimes feel is not due to video games or technology, but are a result of flawed social relations.
No one knows that better than 17 year old Adam from Stockport who has been suffering from severe anxiety all his life, but has found solace in Pokémon GO!. His mother has described his journey from not being able to leave his room to spending time in the park, or even going to a pub, all since the family downloaded the Pokémon GO! app and Adam started engaging with it.
It 2009 a minor accident left the developer of the Superbetter app Jane McGonigal with lasting post-concussion syndrome. After the first month of slower than expected recovery, she decided to gamify the experience and develop a sort of alternative reality game.
She started by formulating a strategy for getting better: setting goals, getting support from close ones, keeping track of symptoms and focusing on progress. McGonigal created a fun superhero identity (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and came up with different missions (such as ‘gather allies’, ‘find the bad guys’ or ‘identify power ups’). By gamifying the experience, she transformed a highly complex and unusual situation into something easier to grasp and much more familiar, which in turn gave her clear goals and ways to accomplish them.
Last year, the Guardian’s Keith Stuart released a semi-autobiographical best-selling novel called A Boy Made Out Of Bricks. The book describes a moving and emotional journey of an autistic boy – the author’s son, Sam – trying to find meaningful connection to the world around him and in the process, discovering Minecraft along the way. Sam’s passion for the game unearths new ways of communicating with other people and provides a chance for his dad Alex to rediscover the relationship with his son through games.
Flowy is a mobile game created with a purpose of helping people suffering from panic attacks. The gameplay includes a ship navigating the sea with various obstacles on the way, but the player is required to breathe in or breathe out at certain points. This enables players to avoid social stigma in public by focusing on their breathing exercises while appearing to simply be playing a video game.
In 2012, researchers in New Zealand created a novel way to help depressed teenagers with Sparx, a video game designed to give therapy to kids in a way that is more fun and active than traditional counselling. About 44% of Sparx players recovered completely from depression as opposed to only 26% of the control group.
In the game, the user customises an avatar and starts to journey within the seven provinces in order to complete different quests. In the first level, gamers challenge Gnats (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts). These Gnats fly towards the avatar and say negative things, such as ‘you’re a loser’. As soon as a quest is completed, the Guide explains how to use new skills in order to feel better, solve problems and enjoy life more.
Physical exercise has often proven to help improve mental health, but digital programs for exercising are typically most useful for those individuals who have a great internal drive or commitment to healthy living. Or at very least, the motivation to remember to log in and stick to the plan.
Now there is a new generation of apps which add that extra incentive. With Pact, users make weekly ‘healthy living goals’ and track their progress, all for cash stakes. Another app called Charity Miles earns $0.10/mile for bikers and $0.25/mile for walkers and runners that is then forwarded to the user’s chosen charity.
7. Depression Quest.
Depression Quest, unfortunately, gave birth to the biggest gaming controversy in living memory – a little online phenomena called #Gamergate. Despite the scandals that followed the launch of this game and its creator Zoë Quinn, the game itself was a worthy contribution towards introducing video games as part of coping mechanisms for people suffering from depression.
Comprising over 40,000 words of text, Depression Quest takes the player through multiple stories and scenarios relating to everyday tasks that are so much more complex for people with mental health issues. One of the beautiful touches of this game is that as the story progresses the amount of options the player gets to click on reduces, portraying the way that for the characters, ‘logical’ options or solutions are simply not available.
8. Tourette’s Quest.
Tourette’s Quest by Lars Doucet tries to capture the experience of living with Tourette’s syndrome. The player controls a yellow smiley face, and must manage its stress levels as they explore dungeons. Enemies are docile, but get more difficult to evade or confront as stress levels grow and symptoms of Tourette’s are exhibited. For example, just walking into a room with more than few monsters in it is inherently stressful.
Every aspect of the game is based on the creator’s life experiences – for instance, friends have noted how his tics sharply increase whenever there are more than three people in the room. Doucet notes just how rewarding the creation and subsequent response to the game has been. People who have loved ones suffering from Tourette’s were able to understand the condition much better having played the game.
9. Role-playing games.
An eloquent article by Jack Yarwood neatly explains his battle with agoraphobia and the role of video games in trying to overcome it. “Not only do they grant me an escape from my monotonous surroundings and an excellent way to relieve stress, but they’ve helped me to develop a voice with which to express myself and reach out to others,” Yarwood says.
Role-playing games have provided an opportunity to visit places he would otherwise be unable to visit and mobile games like Flowy, mentioned above, have alleviated his fear of panic attacks. The gaming communities that Yarwood has been actively participating in have given him a voice and opportunity to engage with other and not feel excluded.
For further resources, there is a fantastic video series discussing video games in the context of suffering from PTSD, for instance, or dealing with the process of grief. It’s also worth reading Dean Ayotte’s brilliant piece promoting gaming as a direct route to fully automated luxury communism. To borrow Ayotte’s words: “The point is not that computer games will solve all of our problems, either personal or societal, but rather that they provide an avenue to explore and spread ideas for use in our everyday lives. In their small way, computer games could be a way of popularizing visions of a better world, and of taking dry academic ideas and making them accessible to a non-academic audience.”
Or in other words, the next time you give anyone hard time about gaming – think again, it may be their only salvation.