Can Video Games Heal?

Society continues to stigmatize mental health challenges, using it to justify villain’s behavior in video games. Blaming bad behavior on mental health.

Not only does this–in video games or the real world–shed a negative light on mental health, it dehumanizes those who do struggle, showing them that they are not capable of doing anything constructive. Because video games are no longer confined to a certain niche, they have the potential to become powerful tools, like other forms of media. In recent years, games are being used to educate students, help stroke victims recover grip strength, and, more recently, assist individuals with mental health challenges.

As more individuals and organizations are attempting to change the way society understands mental health, it is only natural that video game producers and designers are beginning to do the same and video games are increasingly being used as a type of therapy. According to a recent study published in the American Psychologist, in some ways video games can address and overcome limitations that affect traditional therapy.

There is a gap between having the knowledge and actually knowing how to use it, which is why students have homework after a lesson, and it is the same for the tools someone might learn during a therapy session. Even if therapy includes a simulation, it might not evoke authentic emotional reactions or experiences compared to a real-life situation. Video games can address this gap because they engage players in immersive, emotional experiences while providing the opportunity for them to use the tools they might have learned during therapy and practice is automatic.

Access to care is challenging for many people whether they live in a rural area where sessions are hard to reach, they work or go to school during treatment hours, or they are physically or psychologically unable to commute. Video games can reach these populations as they can be delivered to wherever clients reside.

Some children and families cannot afford individual or group therapy. To put it simply, video games are much cheaper.

A team from New Zealand has not only realized the potential of video games, but actually finished developing a game to help with depression and other mental health concerns.

Released in 2013, SPARX – Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts – is a fantasy-role playing game designed to help young people with mild to moderate depression, stress, or anxiety. It was developed as a way to reach out to young people who do not wish to attend face-to-face counseling. In 2012, the game was tested on 187 teens with mild to moderate depression. One group was assigned to the video game and the other group received typical treatment from trained counselors and youth clinics. The game helped more of the youth to recover from their depression in comparison to the usual care group. SPARX was not created to be a replacement for the services that are already available; rather, it should be used as a tool that youth, adults, and mental health professionals can access during their own time.

I realize that there are many studies on the negative effects of gaming (like all things taken in excess, it can be mentally and physically harmful) and I do not think those studies should be ignored. However, the potential also exists that video games can positively affect our society and should be recognized. Second, by no means are we advocating the elimination or replacement of traditional therapy, video games should be seen as a potentially enhancing tool.

I advocate using the tools we have–video games or otherwise–for good rather than to create the types of negative environments where hate and violence may be encouraged.