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Video Gaming for Mental Health

Posted Dec 14 2011 1:28am

“When the player becomes stressed or fearful, the game will increase in intensity and difficulty. When the player calms himself, the game returns to its default state.” Game designer Erin Reynolds

There are many different sorts of video games, and many studies on their psychological and social impacts – research that is often critical or conflicting.

Articles on Psych Central, for example, include Brain Scans Show Violent Video Games Alter Brain Activity , by Rick Nauert PhD and Video Games May Not Enhance Cognitive Skills After All , By Traci Pedersen.

Gaming is not of any particular interest to me, but I was intrigued with a recent newspaper report about Erin Reynolds, a USC cinematic arts graduate student, and her team who are developing a video game that “uses heart-rate sensors to help players learn to stay calm as they wind their way through a decrepit house filled with their characters’ horrific memories.

“She believes her psychological thriller game, Nevermind, can help people develop ways to cope with stress.”

[From USC competition pushes the limits of modern video games , By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times December 11, 2011.]

The Nevermind site describes the group’s upcoming game:

“You can’t fix stress – it is a constant force in our everyday lives that spans geographic borders and cultures. However, you can fix the unhealthy, knee-jerk responses many people have to stress and prepare people to face inevitable conflict. This is exactly what Nevermind intends to do.

“In this vein, the player’s goal is not to remain in a constant state of calm, rather, it is to force himself to proceed into scenarios he knows will cause stress or fear, experience the natural reactions such scenarios prompt, and then quickly temper his response to return back to a state of calm. In other words, Nevermind rewards ‘true’ bravery.

“When the player becomes stressed or fearful, the game will increase in intensity and difficulty. When the player calms himself, the game returns to its default state. If the player is unable to calm himself, then the game becomes increasingly more difficult and intense…”

The site also emphasizes the game is “not a self-­help program that simply lectures to the player how to handle stress.

“Rather, it leads him to personally discover how to manage the stress in a way that is specific to them – and provides plenty of opportunities to practice, refine, and make a habit of employing these healthy coping strategies both in and out of the game.”

[The photo of Erin Reynolds is from her site Reynoldsphobia . She also helped develop the Disney title Epic Mickey (for the Nintendo Wii), among other titles.]

There are also other reports about game or game-like software that can address mental health issues.

Attention retraining

Software that delivers attention retraining – “like really boring computer games,” as Nader Amir, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, describes it, has helped a number of patients diagnosed with social anxiety.

[From Relief from anxiety may be as close as your BlackBerry , Adriana Barton, Globe and Mail, Apr. 03, 2011.]

While the imagery in Nevermind is richly detailed, other games can be beneficial even with crude graphics, like this screen image from Bejeweled 3 by PopCap Games.

The author of a newspaper article writes about Gail Nichols, who has suffered from depression for years.

“When the 49-year-old resident of St. Marys, Kan., cannot sleep, she falls back on a form of entertainment that is gaining increasing credibility as a medical intervention: video games.

“Nichols said she discovered the mental health benefits of video games some years ago during a particularly bad spell of depression.

“She had just started playing a game called Bejeweled, which requires players to move gems into rows based on their color. When she could not get to sleep one night and was tormented by mental pain, she said, she turned on the computer and played the game for hours.”

“In the day, you can find someone to talk to,” Nichols said. “Games are a big help in getting through to the next morning.”

“Nichols liked the game so much that she got in touch with the manufacturer, PopCap Games. The inventors of the game were surprised to hear about its possible mental health benefits, and the company decided to study Bejeweled’s untapped potential systematically.

“In a preliminary study that PopCap commissioned and funded, researchers found that volunteers who played Bejeweled displayed improved mood and heart rhythms compared with volunteers who weren’t playing. The preliminary study was published this year in the Annual Review of Cybertherapy and Telemedicine.”

[From Researchers Explore Mental Health Benefits of Video Games , By Shankar Vedantam, Washington Post, August 18, 2009.]

Restoring or enhancing cognitive function

There are also a number of research studies on the potentials for games to enhance brain abilities. Here is an excerpt of one:

“Stanford professor Dr. Shelli Kesler and colleagues recently published a study in the journal Brain Injury demonstrating improvements in cognition following Lumosity training in childhood cancer survivors.

“Twenty-three pediatric cancer survivors completed 40 sessions of Lumosity training. Participants showed significantly increased processing speed, cognitive flexibility, and memory recall. In addition, brain imaging results showed increased activity in the pre-frontal cortex compared to baseline.”

[From "Study shows Lumosity training increases frontal lobe function" By Joe Hardy, Lumosity blog December 23, 2010.]

The Lumosity site has a number of other research studies about their games (mostly for people without cognitive problems) and brain training programs that “strategically target brain areas such as memory, attention and processing speed.” The site says over 14 million people use their programs.

Also see my related post: Better Thinking: Brain Games For Cognitive Training .

Depression, Social Anxiety, PTSD

In her article FWD News: Video Games Promoting Mental Health , Nathalie Caron reports on research showing games can help with a variety of mental health issues.

“Individuals dealing with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety have been found to find help though video games. Backed up by research in the field of mental health, these psychological conditions have benefited from exposure to a variety of games.

“For example, two studies have found exergames to contribute to fighting depression in older adults.

“Another researcher demonstrates the impact of ‘hardcore’ gamers on the psyche of soldiers, while one company lead by an expert in psychology finds a link between a simple game and reducing social anxiety.

“Dr. Patricia Kahlbaugh, associate professor of psychology at Southern Connecticut State University, presented her work at the 2010 Gerontological Society of America’s Annual Scientific Meeting.

“She revealed the effects of playing Wii on loneliness and mood in elderly individuals, particularly games such as virtual tennis, bowling and golf.

Kahlbaugh explained that recreating the experiences which these older adults previously enjoyed through the video games seemed to allow them to “regain the psychological benefits such activities once afforded them.”

But those kinds of emotional and mental health benefits may work for younger people as well. Maybe teens with depression can benefit, for example.

The article also notes researchers “are turning to video games to help people dealing with anxiety treat themselves. Using an experimental method called ‘attention retraining’ individuals can curb their tendency to dwell on the negative.” [See another reference to Attention retraining above.]

“In one game, players can see a face with a neutral expression flash on the screen at the same time as a disgusted face. A millisecond later, user must identify a letter that appears on the same portion of the screen where the neutral face was. With repetition, the player will begin to ignore the negative image and look to the neutral zone for answers, which has been found to ease anxiety.”

Wii tennis game image from mynintendowiigames.tumblr.com

Article: Overcoming creative anxiety: Eric Maisel on fear of success

Book: Mastering Creative Anxiety : 24 Lessons for Writers, Painters, Musicians, and Actors from America’s Foremost Creativity Coach.

Also see my Anxiety Relief Solutions site for a variety of products and programs.

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