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The Gamification of Mental Health

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There are currently over 2.7 billion gamers in the world today, and they encompass nearly every demographic. Statistics now show that active gamers routinely span age ranges from 18 to 54 years of age. At the same time, it’s no secret that mental illness affects a similarly high number of people across the globe. The percentage of individuals with mental health complaints has only increased with the recent pandemic as well. Given the challenges associated with treating mental health disorders, some are beginning to explore games for mental health care. And thus far, the evidence looks impressive.

(Check out this deep dive into apps devoted to mental health, courtesy of Bold Business.)

In preventing and managing mental illness, healthcare services have encountered some serious challenges. For one, such care is often expensive, forming a notable barrier to care for those with limited resources. Therapists and medications are pricey, and many health insurances offer limited mental healthcare services. Likewise, mental illness and its care continue to be associated with negative social stigma. This too limits access to needed interventions that might improve the situation. But the gamification of mental health interventions could effectively reduce both of these barriers. This is why significant interest in games for mental health has been growing.

“Alternative and preventive therapies are crucial if we’re to mitigate the [current mental health] crisis and avoid a new one. For that to happen we need to consider all possible avenues. And gaming, as one of the most popular forms of leisure, should be a part of that.” – Ryan Douglas, Cofounder of DeepWell

How Gamification of Mental Health Services Works

During the recent pandemic, many turned to video games as a means to escape their fears and anxieties as well as their boredom. From this perspective, video games represent a form of distraction that can alleviate stress. But when it comes to using games for mental health improvement, there are a number of other ways these interventions could help. For one, video games offer a safe and controlled environment to explore complex behaviors and decisions. The simulations and feedback provided then allow individuals to work out issues in a more protected environment with less risk. At a basic level, this is how games for mental health could be of benefit.

Interestingly, however, games for mental health offer additional opportunities as well. Many games allow role playing in specific situations that might alleviate anxiety and worry. Many also enable players to gain a sense of agency and self-actualization. Even though this takes place in a virtual environment, it nonetheless provides real stimulation and real reactions. These facets actually mirror many techniques used in specific mental health therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. Thus, gamification of mental health treatments could serve to further enhance therapeutic efforts already in place. Plus, these would be activities individuals could perform at home and any time without the need to schedule a therapist appointment.

“Video games could offer greater access to adjunctive therapeutic intervention as they can be played at home and at any time, as opposed to traditional care, which typically occurs less frequently and can be prohibitively expensive.” – Michael L. Birnbaum, MD, Program Director of Early Treatment Interventions, Northwell Behavioral Health

Research Concerning Games for Mental Health

In recent years, interest in the gamification of mental health services has increased. As a result, a number of investigators have started to explore the potential benefits of games for mental health. To date, these studies show that some video games improve both depression and anxiety among patients. Specifically, these games alleviated feelings such as loss of pleasure, making management of their condition easier. Gamification of mental health interventions also had positive effects on social anxiety and feelings of isolation. Though not examined as primary treatments, video games offered clear adjunctive benefits in patients with these conditions.

a cartoon of someone growing plants out of their skull
The gamification of mental health means raising awareness about this important issue.

Research has also identified health benefits of specific video games in the gaming industry. For example, those playing Minecraft and Animal Crossings: New Horizons had improved feelings of social connectedness and community. As games for mental health, they reduced complaints of loneliness and improved self-esteem. Mario Kart players were found to have better emotional regulation skills. And those playing Plants Vs. Zombies were found to have lower anxiety levels afterwards when compared to others on medication. All of these findings support the use of gamification for mental health in terms of overall outcomes.

“The research kept coming back that games, not like apps or therapeutic experiments, just games, can be therapeutic. When we realized that so many games that are already out, and have been studied, are therapeutic on their own just by the very nature of their design, that’s when it got real.” – Mike Wilson, Cofounder of DeepWell

Taking a Games First Approach

Many games for mental health already exist. However, most of these games were designed as treatment tools rather than entertainment ones. Mental health care has shown that intrinsic motivation is important for improvements. Therefore, without a desire to play a video game based on its entertainment value, opportunities for success are more limited. This simple fact is what led the cofounders of DeepWell to take a different approach. As a new startup, they hope to collect research on existing video games and certify specific ones for mental health treatments. They also plan to develop new games that entertain as well as treat. They see the gamification of mental health as potentially quite powerful as long as entertainment remains a central focus.

The cofounders of DeepWell have extensive experience not only in video game development but also in medical devices. They also believe that video games have gotten a bad rap over the years, especially when it comes to mental health care. Many researchers and experts agree, which is why there is an increasing desire to pursue games for mental health care now. As research evidence grows, it’s highly likely that gamification of mental health services will expand. And as an adjunct to other treatments that already exist, its potential could be profound. Video games are much more affordable and accessible that medications and therapists. And video games lack the social stigma these other treatments have within society. Based on these aspects, games for mental health might just be an important piece of the mental health care puzzle moving forward.


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