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Today, over 26% of adults in the United States suffer from depression. It seems that this statistic will only get worse in the future, with depression projected to be the second biggest cause of disability by 2020. Naturally, many people are left looking for ways to cope with this often debilitating condition.
Can video games help people with depression? While there are negative stereotypes associated with video games — that people spend hours playing in order to avoid real life — studies have shown that gaming can be a powerful treatment for depression for people of all ages.
The Opposite of Play
Psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith found that people are more confident, energetic and emotionally positive when they play, and he felt that the opposite of play isn’t work, as most people might assume, but depression. The symptoms of depression are in contrast to those of play, and people who feel depressed lack physical energy, find it difficult to carry out daily tasks, and are generally pessimistic. Fortunately, Sutton-Smith’s findings are in line with what other scientific studies have found: video gamers experience neurological benefits from playing.
This is Your Brain on Video Games
When a person plays a video game, two parts of their brain are in a constant state of stimulation. The first is the part of the brain that processes goals and motivation, also called reward pathways. The other is the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
If you’ve ever played a video game before, this may be intuitive. When playing, you focus on a specific goal and are motivated to take the steps required to reach that goal, whether that be to solve a puzzle, battle bad guys, or find hidden treasure. The closer you get to the goal, the more the brain’s reward pathways are activated. When a person is depressed, those two parts of the brain shrink. Gaming can help stimulate those parts of the brain, keeping them active and healthy.
A Video Game Designed Specifically to Treat Depression
While most video games can have positive effects on the brain and mood, SPARX was invented specifically to combat depression. The fantasy game included aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy, though this isn’t obvious to the player. In the game, players create their own avatar and then seek to destroy GNATs, an acronym for “gloomy, negative, automatic thoughts.” In the destroying of these creatures, players learn that those types of thoughts aren’t true or necessary to live with — that they could be destroyed.
The New Zealand-based researchers who created the game found impressive results in their study. Approximately 44% of SPARX players recovered from depression, compared to 26% of patients in treatment. Additionally, 66% of the gaming group saw a reduction in symptoms of 30% or more, compared to 58% of patients in treatment who saw the same reduction in symptoms.
To Play or Not to Play?
Some people who are depressed may turn to video games as a way to self-medicate. This is why some research can be skewed; it can look like gamers have a high likelihood of depression, which can lead to the assumption that gaming has caused it. However, it’s also possible that a lot of people with depression turn to gaming and actually experience a decrease in symptoms. Turning to gaming for medicinal purposes becomes a problem when the gamer attempts to escape their life instead of treating their issues.
Carefully choosing which games are played and ensuring those games have a positive outcome for the player is key to using gaming in a healthy way. For example:
- A game like Words with Friends can help players connect with others socially, while Minecraft can increase an individual’s creativity.
- For veterans in treatment, Wii games may be used to encourage a broader range of movement. Medical technology means that veterans survive more injuries than in the past, but there are also more veterans returning home with physical, mental and emotional issues that require treatment.
- Gamers can improve their confidence and problem-solving skills, making them more apt to deal with real life instead of feeling the need to escape it.
Fighting depression is difficult, and it can impact everything from functioning during daily life to sexual performance, not to mention self-harm and suicidal thoughts. When treatment options feel heavy, threatening, or stressful, it’s less likely that the individual will seek out help. Also, children and teens may not know how to express what they’re going through, and depression can remain undiagnosed.
Video games, whether they’re regular games or specifically designed to improve symptoms of depression, may help some people feel better and engage with life in a more meaningful way. It may be a powerful way to combat depression.