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Computer Games Show Promise as Therapy for Depression

Serious computer games possess potential as mental health therapy, but more research in this area is needed.


Computer games have become part of every day life for millions of teens and adults around the world.  In the United States, over 40% of the population spent more than 3 hours per week playing computer games in 2015.  In an effort to treat depression, researchers are turning to the potential benefits of incorporating gaming in their therapy arsenal.

Quality computer games can enhance concentration, improve learning and even change behavior.  Some computer games have been developed to educate, motivate, or persuade users in a variety of settings.  “Serious games” use gaming as a central theme while “gamification” adds game elements to non-game contexts such as point scoring or embarking on an adventure.

A novel study recently published in Frontiers in Psychiatry reviewed existing literature linking gaming and its potential influence on mental health. Six types of games and their corresponding studies were examined.

– Exergames, sport or movement-based games such as Wii Sports, show promise in easing depressive symptoms, particularly among older adults.  The most playful games had the most noticeable positive effects.  The studies using this type of gaming were small and the results should be interpreted with caution.

– Virtual games use 3D graphics, sounds, smells, and touch stimuli to immerse the participant in a setting. Of the six small-sized studies, one was particularly promising: In Virtual Iraq, players made positive encounters in an effort to counteract PTSD. This finding, coupled with the growing popularity of commercial virtual reality games, suggests promise in using this type of game to treat PTSD.

– Cognitive behavior therapy games such as Sparx and SuperBetter are usually aimed at children or youth. Players complete one level per week and earn points as they progress through the game’s activities. Of the five interventions examined, the results were promising: participants experienced decreased depressive symptoms as compared to the control group, but the attrition rate was high.

– Biofeedback games provide visual feedback on physical indicators by using a sensor attached to the ear lobe or the fingertip. In a small study, teens playing Journey into the Wild Divine showed lower levels of depression and anxiety compared to the control group.

– One study included cognitive training games. Depressed students were asked to sequence numbers and letters. The game had positive results on cognitive impairment, but the effects on mood were not tested.

– Several studies examined the effect of entertainment video games and their influence on mood. For example, playing a violent computer game after working at a frustrating task showed mixed results. A different type of commercial game included using the computer puzzle Tetris for therapeutic purposes.  One study noted that playing Tetris while PTSD memories were activated might help prevent traumatic flashbacks.

There is a growing need for engaging and appealing mental health interventions that will reach a large number of people. The authors conclude that serious gaming has potential as a therapy for mental health. However, few independent trials and direct comparisons between game-based and non game-based therapies currently exist. More research, faster testing, improved collaboration between the scientific and commercial communities, as well as a better understanding of the player motivation and preferences, are needed.


Written By: Lynn Kim



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