Researchers around the world are constantly looking for ways to help patients battle and overcome mental illness. Therapy and medication have been used for decades, and now a new method is making its way into the repertoires of counsellors and therapists – and, even directly into the hands of those suffering from depression, anxiety and a myriad of other conditions. Gamification is proving itself to be effective in the treatment of mental illness, and we’re seeing plenty of patients benefiting from playing various types of video games.

“The potential for positive mental health outcomes from casual play of entertainment games is worthy of exploration, as this might offer opportunities to reach large numbers of people,” reads a 2017 study in Frontiers in Psychiatry, Serious Games and Gamification for Mental Health: Current Status and Promising Directions.

Games Targeted at Treating Mental Illness

Over the course of the past five years, we have seen several innovators create video games designed to help players cope with and treat their mental illness. One of the most successful examples is game called SPARX (Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts), a free online program available only to residents of New Zealand.

The game takes place in a 3D fantasy world, and players must make their way through seven realms and advised to play through one or two levels per week. As players make their way through the levels, they encounter opponents that embody various negative behaviours and influences. By completing puzzles, meeting new characters and solving puzzles, they learn how to develop skills that will help them feel better in day-to-day life.

SPARX has been proven to be an effective method of treating and preventing mental illness, as evidenced by a 2012 study by University of Auckland’s Department of Child and Youth Health and Psychological Medicine. A group of nearly 200 students were divided up: half receive traditional treatment from trained counsellors while the other half played SPARX. In both groups, about one-third of participants reported that their levels of anxiety and depression had been reduced.

Entertainment Video Games in Mental Health Treatment

It isn’t just therapy-based games that have a significant impact on the mental health of players. A 2014 study, game-based digital interventions for depression therapy: a systematic review and meta-analysis, found that entertainment games like shooters, puzzles and RPGs can have help to relieve stress and depression.

In this study, participants were given a “frustrating task” and the given 45 minutes to play a violent videogame. After playing the game, participants reported lower symptoms of depression. A 2009 study, the effectiveness of casual video games in improving mood and decreasing stress, a similar test was conducted, except participants played a puzzle game (Bejeweled II) afterwards. They also reported an improved mood.

Even when video games aren’t developed for solely therapeutic purposes, they have the ability to improve the mood of players. These studies go a long way to proving that gamification could have an important place in mental health treatment.

More Varied Applications

Video games can treat more than depression and anxiety, and researchers are looking for more applications to help benefit those suffering from various mental illnesses. As we learn more about the effectiveness of gamification in mental health treatment, people dealing with phobias, addictions and even PTSD will be able to benefit.

Recently, researchers have been working with virtual reality technology to help people cope with phobias. In a recent study, using VR, 23 participants suffering from arachnophobia were encouraged to gradually approach a digital spider. By the end of the treatment, over 80% were able to improve how they react around spider – with some participants able to approach tarantulas in real life without experiencing significant anxiety.

We are also seeing new apps being developed to help treat addiction. From Quit Genius that aims to help people stop smoking to free slots games that provide an alternative for individuals who want to curb their gambling spending, online games are becoming more widely used in aiding those who want to improve their mood and change their behaviour.

There is huge potential for video games of all kinds of change the way we treat mental illness. Whether it is using virtual reality to help people cope with phobias, apps that curb addiction or online games that aim to treat depression, gamification is becoming an effective method that bears impressive results. It will be interesting to see where researchers take this technology in the future, and how quickly patients will be to adopt gamification as a mainstream method of mental illness treatment.