Drop the Prozac, Pick Up a Game

You may have heard games are violent, dark and addictive. Turns out they can heal, too.

May 6, 2010 - Videogames often get bad press. Mainstream media often portray gamers are a miserable lot, closeted alone in their windowless basements, chain-chugging soda and takeout pizza, while games themselves are violent, overly sexual, filled with bad language and objectionable content, and offer nothing useful to society.

But some gamers have a very different story to tell. For disabled gamers, interactive entertainment can be a valuable tool for fun and escape, a place where players are not seen for their disabilities first. And it's not just physically disabled people who are finding that games are helping them – people with depression, anxiety and stress have found that games are just what the doctor ordered.

A recent study commissioned by PopCap Games found that casual games like Bejeweled and Peggle can help lift people's moods and help combat stress, fatigue, psychological tension, and anger. In a six-month study of 134 people, they found that playing Bejeweled reduced stress by 54 percent compared to a control group. The games also help lift participants' moods, particularly with Peggle, where there was a massive 573 percent improvement after playing.

Dr. Carmen Russoniello, who conducted the study, explains, "Granted, this study was a first step and much more needs to be done before videogames can be prescribed to treat medical conditions. However, these exciting results confirm anecdotal evidence that people are playing casual videogames to improve their mood and decrease their stress, and herald casual games' potential in health promotion, disease prevention, and treatment of stress- and mood-related disorders."

He is now conducting further investigation into the possibilities that games offer for improving mental well-being. Other research has found that exergames like Wii Fit are useful in combating depression in older adults – provided they are sprightly enough to participate.

Nathalie Caron, a 24-year-old from Ottawa in Canada, has been suffering from depression since she was a teenager. Although she found that medication helped somewhat, there were still periods when the dark feelings would "linger." Her husband introduced her to videogames, and she says she has found them extremely helpful.

"I find that immersive worlds and games that tell a story much like a movie offer great comfort at times when feeling down," she says. "For me, games like Prince of Persia and Final Fantasy offer a refuge from the occasional sorrow of life. These games offer a sort of escape which I sometimes need to view life more objectively."

Wide open spaces.

Caron also mentioned task and puzzle games like Nintendo's Artstyle series, and music games like SingStar and DJ Hero, which she says help release stress and calm her nerves.

Other people find that games are a great distraction when times get tough, and that curling up with a good game can make life's troubles more bearable. Such is Jennifer Lang's story. The 27-year-old from L.A. turned to games to help her deal with a personal tragedy.

"I've suffered from depression and anxiety off and on since I was teenager, but it was never as severe as it was after I lost a baby at 13 weeks last year," she says. "I found I had way too much time on my hands, and that time was spent thinking about and in some cases ruminating about what had happened. I picked up Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise because I knew I could spend hours upon hours in that game. And that's just what I did for a couple of weeks, until we had a brief issue with our Xbox and I couldn't play. I panicked. What on Earth was I going to do if I couldn't play a game? It was at that point that I decided to get some help, and in doing so learned that gaming was not only my preferred way to cope, but was actually recommended by the therapists who led my group."

Lang said her experience is that, although we are often told that avoiding our feelings or distracting ourselves from them is a bad thing, sometimes it can be useful, and games are a great vehicle to help us do that.

"For those of us who suffer or have suffered from severe depression and anxiety, getting out of your head is extremely important. It's really hard for people who have never been to that place to understand, but it can actually make the difference between life and death in some cases," she says. "I couldn't find anything during that time that could occupy my mind completely, except games. Unlike movies and TV where references to babies and pregnancy are everywhere -- I never noticed this until that happened -- games were a safe place for me to go. They offered me the solace and escape I so desperately needed."

Another gamer, Simon Thompson, a 20-year-old Brit currently living in Germany, says he would go so far as to say that gaming literally saved his life. When he was 14, he became so depressed that he was sent to an institution for his own safety. It was there that he discovered gaming, which he enjoyed immensely, and which gave him a reason to get up in the morning and carry on living.

"I had first dabbled with gaming some years before when I had, after much effort, persuaded my dad to let me buy a Nintendo 64. I had played it quite a bit, but I never really bought many games for it," he says. "I think I just wasn't too adventurous back then. After a few years I finally persuaded my dad again to let me spend my pocket money on a PS2, but it was kind of the same deal. I had great fun but I didn't get into it too much."

But that all changed when Thompson's depression changed his outlook on life and led to one of his life's darkest periods.
 "I think it was only really in the unit that I found out how much I enjoyed [gaming]. I was living in a state where the minutes seemed to drag by to the extent I would go to bed at 7:00 just so I could get the day over with. When I played videogames, I could be sucked into another world and look at the clock and wonder where on earth two hours had just gone," he says. "You could say that games were the antidote for me. For a brief while I could live in a world where my actions meant something, where cause had an effect, whereas in real life I felt everything was meaningless."

How can you be sad when Bjorn is around?
In February 2009, it was widely reported that a study had found that excessive use of videogames could also cause depression, although the study itself actually reported the opposite. It was, in fact, hours and hours of sedentary TV watching which caused heightened levels of depression, and "we did not find a consistent relationship between development of depressive symptoms and exposure to videocassettes, computer games, or radio," the study's authors wrote.

However, it's not all good news. For those battling addiction, unfortunately games can sometimes prove to be just as addictive as drugs or alcohol, especially those that never end, like World of Warcraft and EverQuest. In fact, there is now a dedicated video game addiction recovery clinic in the Netherlands, and another clinic in California has added games to its addiction treatment programs.

Many gamers we spoke to who are trying to deal with anxiety or depression are also careful to avoid online gaming on Xbox Live or similar platforms, preferring instead to play alone against a computer (and therefore more predictable and polite) opponent. Although research is thin on the ground, cyber-bullying and trash-talking online are a well-documented reality.

Caron admits that she is careful which kind of games she picks to play when she's feeling down. She says, "One of the things that I like the most about games that make me feel good is usually that there are not penalties or very few for failing. In my opinion it is important for game developers to offer that type of game mode, so that everyone can appreciate their products in a pleasing way. Unforgiving game play where you die constantly is frustrating and a turn off, and if all games were still like that, I don't think I would be turning to them as much to help me with my depression."

Thompson agrees, and adds that when he's feeling not so great, he's careful to avoid playing multiplayer games against strangers online.

"While there a lot of people that are nice enough, going online can put you in direct contact with people that feel the need to constantly insult you in the most childish ways possible -- and if you're already feeling kind of miserable, these people can do a damn good job at making you feel much, much worse," he says. "That said, if you have a few good online buddies and stick with them, playing together can be the most rewarding experience gaming has to offer."

Games like WoW can be a double-edged sword when it comes to mental health.

Dr. Carmen Russoniello is currently working on his second, more in-depth study into the effects of casual games in promoting positive mental health, and his results are expected to be made public at the end of the month. However, Russoniello doesn't believe that games themselves can be the cause of mental illness.

"My reason is simple -- most mental illness is caused by untoward stress just like addiction. If you consider a situation where someone played video games obsessively and was depressed, you can see how someone could assume one caused the other," he says. "More likely the condition is caused by stress. From my perspective people become more obsessive and prone to addiction as stress increases. Obsession like addiction is often a coping mechanism --that is, if I am distracted by being obsessed with a video game then I cannot concentrate on my worries. When I don't focus on these worries, my body does not act in a fearful way."

It's clear that games have the power to be great healers and comforts in times of mental anguish, although it seems that it's likely there are certain types and modes of games that are best avoided when one is feeling low. Russoniello also believes that picking the right games to play is important.

He says, "There is a complex relationship that exists between a person and a video game, much of which is not understood. It is only recently we have begun to consider that some games could have a positive psychological and physical effect. There is also pretty good evidence that violent video games produce negative effects. Specificity is lacking, so we don't know exactly which games produce what types of effects. This is very important research because the possibility exists to eventually prescribe different types of games to produce different types of effect."

Perhaps with more studies and research into the correlations between games and mood, including Russoniello's latest study results, there will begin to be an acceptance and a stronger interest in the value of playing games to beat the blues. MovieMiguel.com
blog comments powered by Disqus