Could gaming help treat depression and anxiety?

Popular video games have the potential to provide low-cost, easy access, effective and stigma-free support for some mental health issues
Could gaming help treat depression and anxiety?

Postgraduate researcher Jessica Mangione and lab Director Dr Mark Campbell. Picture: Diarmuid Greene / True Media

Parents battling to get the controllers and headsets away from children and teens might want look away but Irish researchers have found that popular video games might prove to be a low-cost, easy access, effective and stigma-free support for some mental health issues

Lero is the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software: it is a world leader in connected-health research and brings together expert software teams from universities and institutes of technology across Ireland in a co-ordinated centre of research excellence.

The team at Lero took on this research as a "Covid project as we couldn't get into the labs" and say that video games could be used where conventional therapies are not available because of cost or location, or as an addition to traditional therapeutic treatments for depression or anxiety.

Lero researcher, Dr Mark Campbell, said there is mounting scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of commercial video games to improve mental health outcomes after the team reviewed existing academic research on the impact of video games on mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety.

“It is worth considering commercial video games as a potential alternative option for the improvement of various aspects of mental health globally,” he added.

The team examined everything from first-person shooter games to role-play games and exergames — these included Rainbow Six Siege, Fortnite, and Minecraft as well as Flappy Bird, Candy Crush and Tap the Frog. 

Dr Campbell led a team attached to University of Limerick’s Health Research Institute and Physical Education & Sport Sciences department to publish their latest research paper Gaming your mental health: A narrative review on mitigating depression and anxiety symptoms via commercial video games in academic journal JMIR Serious Games.

Dr Campbell said commercial video games are freely available or available for a one-time relative low cost and noted that there are an estimated 2.7 billion video gamers worldwide.

“The overall accessibility and pervasiveness of commercial video games within modern society positions them as an invaluable means of reaching individuals with mental health disorders, irrespective of age and sex, and with limited access to mental health care, particularly relevant during the current COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

Lead author on the paper, Magdalena Kowal of Lero and UL, said their research is in the context of the financial and healthcare service burden of mental illness, affecting more than 14% of the world’s population, with a significant proportion of people with mental health problems not receiving treatment.

“There is a heightened demand for accessible and cost-effective methods that prevent and facilitate coping with mental health illness. This demand has become exacerbated following the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent increase in mental health disorders, depression and anxiety in particular,” she said.

Magdalena Kowal, Lero at University of Limerick 
Magdalena Kowal, Lero at University of Limerick 

One long-running concern over violent video games has been whether they are linked to real-life violent behavior or aggression. 

Dr Campbell said research by Professor Andrew Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, has found no association between violent video games and violent tendencies. 

"In fact, there is research to say that gaming of all kinds can help with emotion regulation. A lot of the games played now are played with friends online and in these multiplayer games there are norms of behaviour that you have to obey."

He also noted that gaming can boost cognitive development and can enhance fine motor skills. 

This subject is part of the team's next area of research. They are going to look at stimulating specific areas of the brain to examine the impact on fine motor skills. Transcranial direct current stimulation is already being tested on PGA golfers to see if it brings improvements.

Lero Esports Science research lab director, Dr Mark Campbell. Picture: Diarmuid Greene / True Media
Lero Esports Science research lab director, Dr Mark Campbell. Picture: Diarmuid Greene / True Media

Magdalena Kowal said commercially available Virtual Reality (VR) video games have great potential in treating mental health issues also: “These are well-suited for the implementation of cognitive behavioural techniques for the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders in the future. Given the immersive nature of VR technology and the controllability of the virtual environment, it could be particularly well-suited for use in exposure therapy."

Lero’s research spans driverless cars, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, esports, fintech, govtech, smart communities, agtech and healthtech.

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