Can Video Games Help Treat Depression?

By Bryan Le 07/29/19

Some believe that a mind at play experiences beneficial neurological effects.

Image: 
A retro video game console controller
It's not just a distraction, it wakes up reward pathways and the hippocampus. Doctor_bass | Dreamstime.com

Video games could be beneficial for those suffering from depression, some experts believe. It may seem counterintuitive as players seem to use video games to isolate and distract themselves from the world, but the mind at play helps people feel more confident and energetic.

Anyone who has played video games knows it stimulates the mind, designed to tickle a person’s reward pathways when they achieve a goal or task as well as develop memory and learning in the hippocampus.

In depressed people, these parts of the brain shrivel. Engaging in a combination of strategy, diligence, and effort to achieve a virtual goal can yield a very real sense of accomplishment that can help restore these critical regions.

Fighting Depression

Researchers have even created a video game specifically tailored to combat depression. In SPARX, players navigate a fantasy world and fight creatures called GNATs (short for gloomy, negative, automatic thoughts) that represent the mental formations of depression. The game is actually a form of cognitive behavioral therapy, wherein players are led to literally confront and defeat their negative thoughts.

While the game may seem hokey, it works, HeadStuff reported. About 44% of those who played SPARX recovered from depression, up from the 26% of patients recovered though treatment without the game. In recovery, around 66% of SPARX players felt that their depression symptoms had been reduced by at least 30%, while a relatively fewer 58% of non-players could say the same.

This could explain why some people link depression and video games, mistakenly assuming that the lonely escapist gamer is falling deeper into depression as a result of their self-imposed isolation.

However, this cause-and-effect explanation is probably reversed—a depressed gamer is likely already depressed and is actually managing their own symptoms through the use of video games.

Problematic Gaming

That said, video gaming can become problematic if it is used only as an escape and distraction from life. It’s become a prevalent enough problem that the World Health Organization has officially recognized gaming disorder in its International Classification of Diseases.

Like many forms of media, it comes down to which titles are played. Games like Minecraft engage the creative imagination of players, while Nintendo Wii games help people stand up and get moving. Online games like Fornite provide social interaction that can be increasingly harder for children to find as public gathering places, such as malls, fall out of fashion.

Considering that over 26% of adults in the United States suffer from depression, it’s necessary to get to the truth of what helps and harms people suffering from depression.

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter

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