About this post: Video games can be a treatment for anxiety and depression. Used in therapeutic ways, gaming can enhance your strengths and improve your mental health.
I’ve realized through my work as a therapist that one of the best ways to connect with someone is to meet them at a point of mutual interest.
For me, one of those areas is gaming. Playing video games brings in so much of your personality and your abilities, and it can mimic some of the ways in which you live in this world – discussing and understanding more about my clients’ gaming, or even spending some time playing with them, can really inform and help along our work in therapy.
Even in everyday life, many people have been turning to technology not only to stay connected with loved ones, but also as an escape to cope with the stresses of the pandemic. In March 2020, during which the pandemic had begun to cause lockdowns and a number of new cases were rising, the new installment of the beloved video game franchise Animal Crossing came out with New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch. In this game, players customize their own character and develop their own community on a private island. Each day there are tasks to complete, fish and bugs to catch, flowers to plant, neighbors to interact with, and so on.
While this may seem mundane to some, this game provides routine and escape that can bring a sense of normalcy back into players’ lives and decrease anxiety. News outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and The Huffington Post published articles discussing the mental health benefits this game has provided during this difficult time.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, video games have been providing therapeutic benefits for decades. As early as the 1980s, researchers have found that video games help improve impulsivity, develop motor and problem-solving skills, release anger and aggression, and help cope with loss (Kappes & Thompson, 1985, Gardner, 1991). Video games now have been developed by doctors and researchers to utilize therapeutic modalities such as cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT.
These therapeutic games have been used to treat a variety of disorders such as depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, and more in both children and adults (Brezinka, 2014, Crawford et al., 2013, Foroushani et al., 2011). Several studies have also shown that video games can improve social skills such as enhancing cooperation, increasing communication, and learning and implementing teambuilding skills (Gardner, 1991, Gay-lord Ross et al., 1984, Ferguson et al., 2014).
While there are many games made specifically to improve mental health, there are also mainstream games made for the general population that can also serve the same purpose. Here are my top 3 mainstream games and what I like about them.
In Celeste, the player controls a character named Madeline, who is trying to climb a large mountain. Along the way, Madeline runs into an evil entity known simply as “Part of Me”, who discourages her from climbing the mountain and points out her insecurities and worries.
The game is challenging, with difficult platforming and obstacles, but teaches important lessons on how to cope with anxiety and depression. There’s even one segment that leads players in a deep breathing exercise! Anyone who has ever had that voice in their head that tells them they can’t do something or dealt with anxiety can benefit from playing this game. More information about the game and where you can buy it can be found here.
2. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Psychosis is often negatively portrayed in the media, with video games being no exception. While psychosis is often used as a device for horror in many video games, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice takes an honest and realistic look on the effects that trauma and psychosis have on an individual. The game focuses around a character named Senua, a Celtic warrior who is attempting to save their partner from the underworld. Along the way, Senua relives the trauma of their abusive father which leads them to experience delusions and hallucinations. The developers of this game, Ninja Theory, worked closely with mental health experts and people who experienced psychosis when they were developing the story. The game beautifully explores themes of trauma, loss, and psychosis in a way that very few forms of media have done before. More information about the game and where you can buy it can be found here.
3. Depression Quest
Depression Quest is an interactive fiction game where you play as someone going through depression and complete daily tasks. The game shows what it is like having depression, as certain choices aren’t available due to depressive symptoms (ie. you can’t get up and make breakfast in the game until you’ve begun therapy and/or medication management). This game can allow for loved ones and others to better understand depression and how it impacts those who have it. Best of all, the game is free! There is also option to pay what you want to pay and a portion of the proceeds goes to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. You can play the game here.
Video gaming doesn’t replace the benefits offered by traditional therapy, but it can be integrated into your treatment. You could come in for a consultation and be “prescribed” the games that would be helpful for you. Or you could engage in ongoing therapy where you play specific games in between sessions and then bring the discussion around the game into the therapy session. You could even spend a session playing a game together, both of your avatars connecting in the world you’ve created. These are some of the ways that I incorporate video games in my sessions with clients – there are so many ways to include gaming in your mental health journey, and also have a lot of fun along the way!
Written by Mairead Keogan, LMSW, Clinical Psychotherapist at graymatters. Mairead enjoys incorporating her clients’ interests into her therapeutic work with them. Her own interests include movies, TV, video games, reading, embroidery. social justice and mental health advocacy. To work with Mairead, you can book a session with her here.