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Published October 5, 2019

For a long time, psychiatrists have been warning over the link between depression and video games. But this situation is changing with the findings from the new studies. For instance, a compelling new study has followed thousands of Canadian teenagers for several years tracking associations between screen time use and depression. The research separated different types of screen time, and found while frequent television and social media activity correlated with increased symptoms of depression, video game and computer use seemed to have little or no negative effect. The researchers hypothesize the reason behind social media and television potentially being more damaging to mental health is that these forms of media more realistically depict idealized versions of teens and adults, unlike the abstracted depictions seen in video games. The study also suggests the average gamer is not socially isolated, with more than 70 per cent of gamers playing with other people either online or in person.

A study supporting the idea of using video games to alleviate symptoms of depression, was recently published. Kühn et al. (2018) showed that the fast paced action video games has potential to improve cognitive ability and reduce rumination in depressed individuals. They recruited 68 clinically depressed individuals that were randomized into the training group playing a fast paced action video game for 6 weeks or a waitlist control group. Before and after training participants completed online questionnaires and a neuropsychological test battery. The training group showed significantly higher subjective cognitive ability, as well as lower self-reported rumination at posttest in contrast to the control group. On a subsample with cognitive performance data they detected an improvement in executive function in the training compared with the control group. The results show that the fast paced action video game employed in the study improved Trail Making performance and may reduce rumination and enhance subjective cognitive ability.

In addition to those findings, video games have started to be developed to tackle mental health issues, particularly depression. Such as Sea of Solitude developed by Electronic Arts. Last year, a game called Celeste explored depression and anxiety through a protagonist who had to avoid physical and emotional obstacles. In 2017’s fantasy action-adventure video game Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, a young Celtic warrior deals with psychosis. Other games in recent years, including Night in the Woods and Pry, have delved into self-identity, anger issues and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some makers are now developing games to explicitly promote better mental health. Orpheus Self Care Entertainment, a start-up that was founded last year, is publishing virtual reality games in which players practice mindfulness and meditation through activities like dancing. In one game, players move their bodies in virtual reality to create patterns and shapes that move and change color. IThrive Games Foundation, a nonprofit that aims to improve mental health in teenagers through games and education, is also working on a new mobile game for teenagers who suffer from anxiety. The nonprofit is experimenting with a few different game styles — from role-playing to choose-your-own-adventure — for it. IThrive hopes to test the game by next year.

Rather than keeping people, especially teenagers, away from video games for the purpose of protecting their mental health, in the following years we will see video games being used in the fight against mental problems.

Kühn, S., Berna, F., Lüdtke, T., Gallinat, J., & Moritz, S. (2018). Fighting depression: action video game play may reduce rumination and increase subjective and objective cognition in depressed patients. Frontiers in psychology, 9, 129.

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