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Video Games and Mental Health

Filament Games | Educational Game Developer

The timing was impeccable. Animal Crossing: New Horizons hit store shelves on March 20, 2020, just as COVID-19 lockdowns and stay-at-home orders were sweeping the United States. Shortly thereafter, the game became the fastest-selling title in Switch history – selling more than 13 million copies in just six weeks.

Of course, Animal Crossing was poised for success even prior to its planned launch alongside a global pandemic – the game had been highly anticipated since it was first revealed nearly two years prior, and rave reviews from critics also likely helped cement its fate as a best-seller. However, as many players on Reddit and Twitter noted, the timing of Animal Crossing’s launch helped elevate the title to much more than a game for many players – amidst uncertain times, players around the world turned to Animal Crossing as a way to protect their mental health.

Today, we’re stepping away from our usual focus on games for learning, instead highlighting a burgeoning field of serious games research: the intersection of mental health and gaming. A growing body of research supports the potential of video games as a medium for clinical treatment – but more than that, certain games can also serve as powerful tools for both self-care and mental health advocacy. Here’s how:

Games for Clinical Treatment

Much like how digital games can be harnessed by educators to aid and enhance their instruction, serious games can be utilized by professionals in the mental health field as a method of engaging with their clients during treatment.

A 2012 study published in the British Medical Journal attempted to measure the effectiveness of SPARX, a game-based treatment designed specifically as a self help intervention for youth living with depression. Across 187 treatment-seeking adolescents – half given the game-based treatment, the others traditional face-to-face counseling – researchers found that participants who received the game-based SPARX treatment experienced a greater reduction in their measured levels of depression when compared to their peers. These early results shine a promising light on the potential of game-based interventions as a compliment to traditional treatment methods – however there remains much research to be done prior to widespread adoption of such tools.

iThrive Games is entirely focused on the intersection of games and mental health, striving to foster mental wellness and social and emotional growth through meaningful gameplay experiences. Of course, the use of games in treatment must be thoughtfully and properly integrated – some patients may find the use of video games as treatment as “trivializing or inappropriate” and prefer more traditional treatment methods, and professionals who do choose to embrace games with their patients must ensure that their selected games are high-quality and relevant to their client’s needs.

Eric J. Topol, MD, Medscape Editor-in-Chief, sits down with neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD for an in-depth discussion on the therapeutic potential of digital games:

Games for Self-Care

Amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic, it’s critical that we all remember to routinely practice self-care – whether that comes in the form of reading, exercising, sleeping, or gaming.

And researchers agree – a new study from Oxford University has found evidence that suggests a relation between video game play and benefits to one’s well-being and mental health. Using data collected from players of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons and EA’s Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, the study measured participants’ play time across two-week periods in August and September 2020, comparing this data with survey results where players would respond to statements such as “I felt competent at Plants vs Zombies” or “I experienced a lot of freedom in Animal Crossing”. Across more than 6,500 participants, the study found that individuals who played for longer periods of time were generally more likely to express positive feelings about both the game and their overall mental health – signifying the possibility of a “small positive relation” between the amount of time people spend gaming and their mental well-being.

Furthermore, and particularly important during times of social distancing, digital games allow for players to connect with one another in shared digital spaces, granting access to meaningful, shared experiences – entirely remotely. Right now, for millions across the globe, online gaming is serving as a key platform for socialization, togetherness, and community-building during a time in which shared spaces in real-life are largely inaccessible – lending even further credence to the value of games as a tool for self-care.

Sky News shares a closer look at the results of Oxford University’s recent research on the connection between video game play and mental wellbeing:

Games for Advocacy

Throughout much of gaming history, mental illness has been portrayed as villainous – whether through frightening characters such as Far Cry 3’s Vaas or through harmful depictions of asylums in games like Batman: Arkham Asylum

Regrettably, these frequent instances breed and reinforce harmful stigmas towards both individuals and mental health professionals as well. Thankfully, however, this is slowly beginning to change – largely due to an increased number of new games choosing to avoid archaic portrayals of mental illnesses as “evil,” instead working offer more complex and authentic portrayals of mental illness through characters and scenarios designed in tandem with subject matter experts and individuals with lived experience.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one such game, with developer Ninja Theory working closely alongside neuroscientists, mental health specialists, and real patients in order to more accurately develop main character Senua, who herself experiences symptoms of psychosis as a key feature of the game’s storyline. Other recent releases like Celeste and Gris attempt to tactfully integrate depression into their respective narrative and gameplay mechanics, offering players more complex, holistic, and authentic representations of mental illnesses. 

For more examples of games which strive to achieve authentic representations of mental illnesses, check out this video from our friends at Extra Credits:


Explore even more ways video games can foster a positive impact: 
How Educational Video Games Can Help Foster Social and Emotional Learning
Using Commercial Video Games for Classroom Learning
How Nonprofits Can Harness the Power of Games for Impact

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