If I asked you to picture a group of gamers — you might indulge in an old stereotype: socially isolated loners never leaving their mothers’ basements for fear of missing a key move in Call of Duty.
The reality is that lots of different kinds of people play video games, and the process can actually be beneficial for mental health.
How a game affects the player, of course, depends on the game. And on the way the game is played (IE sitting in front of the computer for days on end probably isn’t going to boost your mood).
Let’s consider the research. One meta-analysis published by the National Institutes of Health found that games can have an effect in depression therapy, with virtual reality being particularly helpful for PTSD, driving phobia, and acrophobia (fear of heights). Even casual games like Bejeweled II, Freeze-Framer 2.0, and Journey to the Wild Divine were found to be helpful when it comes to depression.
In another study, researchers at the University of California Davis found that video games that were specifically designed to mimic neurophysiological training tasks proved helpful in treating depression. These games were built to teach the player cognitive behavioral skills.
“Through the use of carefully designed persuasive message prompts … mental health video games can be perceived and used as a more viable and less attrition-ridden treatment option,” the scientists said in a press release. Meaning, people are likely to benefit from the treatment and actually stick with it.
The details on this research is scant, at best. So if you’re a person trying to manage your own depression, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to figure out which games are helpful and which aren’t.
Personally, I’m into Fruit Ninja. It’s fun, it’s distracting, and it’s nonviolent (FYI fruit can’t feel).
Anecdotally, I’ve found that playing light-hearted games is totally distracting when I’m feeling down. TV, while an incredibly tempting way to pass the time, tends to make me feel worse. It doesn’t actually engage my brain — so the negative thoughts keep coming, even while watching the idiot box (as my grandma used to call it). Games, however, require some level of engagement that distracts me from my endless stream of suffering. (Hint: I’d say stay away from uber-violent games with bleak scenarios.)
It’s not just video games that have this effect, either. One of the only times I feel like I succeed in getting out of my own head is while playing Cards Against Humanity. The multi-player card game is dirty, inappropriate, and HILARIOUS. And nothing lifts my mood faster than a contagious-till-you-cry belly laugh.
Granted, for some games you need additional players — Jenga, Scrabble, Pictionary — all the old-school games are a great way to distract yourself and squeeze in some social time. Depending on the state of your mood, being with other people can be helpful — or potentially hurtful. Only you can decide. But smartphone and computer games you can play solo, so you can pull out your phone for a quick diversion anytime you’re feeling down.
These are just my personal preferences; you might hate the games I’ve mentioned and love others. My point with this post is to suggest that playing games might be a worthwhile addition to your anti-depression toolkit. Hit the app store and check out some of the top rated games, 0r go to the game aisle at your local Target. Then, play your little heart out.
(Remember, these tools are just options for helping yourself feel a bit better; they’re no substitute for medical help for depression. If you’re feeling suicidal, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273 TALK.)