The potential for video games in treatment for depression is a very overlooked and under-studied field.
For decades, popular media has played up the narrative that video games are bad for children and developing youth. Whether it was behavioral problems, lack of exercise or less social interaction, there has been concern that video games cause more harm than good for anyone who plays them.
And while there may be valid reasons to be concerned about anyone who takes in video games in excess, video games could also prove to be an excellent way to help fight depression for some people.
We need to have a conversation about video games and mental health.
Depression varies in intensity and in the length of time it can affect an individual. An article published by the World Health Organization estimates that 5.0% of the adult population, or “Approximately 280 million people” have depression globally.
And despite what many people may think, depression isn’t always a lifelong condition. Like many other mental illnesses, experiencing depression can be circumstantial and reactionary. This type of depression–sometimes referred to as situational or reactive depression–can happen to nearly anyone following events like the death of a loved one, losing a job, breaking up with a partner, moving to a new location and a plethora of other stressful situations. This condition is typically resolved with time, or after an individual has come to terms with a new situation.
On the other hand, major depressive disorder (MDD, or it is sometimes referred to as clinical depression) is a more severe form of depression and can be lifelong. While major depressive disorder and situational depression share many of the same symptoms, MDD is likely caused in part by genetic factors and chemical imbalances in the brain.
Regardless of which kind of depression a person lives with, the symptoms of listlessness, hopelessness, sadness, anxiety can be aided and sometimes significantly reduced with proper medical treatment.
So how do video games play a role in recovery?
An increasing number of studies have shown that video games help combat symptoms of depression by evoking pleasure, regulating moods and inducing joy.
In an interview with Very Well Mind, Dr. Glenn Platt said, “Video games provide connection, a critical aspect of mental health, feeling like you are part of a community of like-minded people who value your participation and share your goal within the game.” Building community through technology is already a topic that has been covered at length here, and the potential for this kind of mental health treatment is immense.
Although 280 million people worldwide suffer from depression, treatment is still not widely available for people living in the United States.
“Although there are known, effective treatments for mental disorders, more than 75% of people in low- and middle-income countries receive no treatment (2)” W.H.O. reported. A 2020 Healthline article titled How Much Does Depression Cost? made an effort to list out the most common types of medication used to treat depression and their costs for a 30-day supply. The costs varied significantly – 20 milligrams of fluoxetine would cost approximately $4, while Wellbutrin SR/XL could cost up to $1,992 every month.
In addition, the same Healthline article explained that the average cost of therapy treatments hover around $100, but prices can vary depending on the kinds of coverage offered by a person’s insurance.
Census data collected in 2020 determined that the median household income in the United States was $67,521. That would mean the median expendable income for Americans would be $5,626.75 a month. Based on that math, the highest estimated payment for depression treatment is somewhere around $2,092 a month, or nearly half of your monthly income without including taxes, groceries, rent, and other necessary payments.
Those numbers begin to add up very quickly. For a good number of Americans, it is not realistic to be able to spend half of their monthly income on medication and treatment for depression. But if depression is left untreated, dangerous coping behaviors like drug and alcohol addiction can occur. Or even worse, untreated depression can result in someone taking their own life.
This means that for many people, there needs to be a creative, cost-effective way to help manage the symptoms of depression. This is where video games come in.
By nature, games are designed to engage with a person’s mind and entertain. A 2015 article How Video Games Can Teach your Brain to Fight Depression defines depression as the opposite of “playing”. By engaging with video games, it’s possible to “experience stronger self-confidence, increased physical energy, and powerful positive emotions, like curiosity and excitement,” wrote Jane McGonigal. So it makes sense to say that encouraging our minds to play and solve puzzles through gaming can help combat many of the major symptoms of depression.
Not only that, but the options for gaming are both endless and cost-effective. Some games, like the New Zealand-based video game SPARX, are free to use and easy to access online. Others, like Sea of Solitude, can be purchased online for $19.99, but vary in price. In comparison to a total of nearly $2,000 for medication and talk-therapy, video games tend to max out at around $70 for a one-time purchase. That’s not to say that video games can outright replace traditional methods of treatment, but they could prove to be a viable supplement to treatment.
But while playing video games can help fight some of the worst symptoms of depression, it’s also worth noting that playing video games addictively can also negatively impact a person’s mental health.
Like most things, playing video games in excess can reflect poorly on a person’s mental wellbeing, and can even lead to increased symptoms of depression. A 2019 study published to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) titled The Association Between Mobile Game Addiction and Depression, Social Anxiety and Loneliness revealed that “…video game addicts suffered poorer mental health and cognitive functioning, and increased emotional difficulties, such as enhanced depression and anxiety, as well as more social isolation.”
Another 2021 article titled The Relationship Between Video Games and Depression wrote that “Video games and depression occur together in over a quarter of all people with gaming disorder. One group of study participants were addicted to video games, while the people in the control group were not hooked on gaming. Just over 26 percent of the video gamers had depression. Slightly more than 11 percent of non-gamers had depression (Liu, 2018).”
Moving forward, it’s crucial that video games are more thoroughly studied to see how they can be best implemented to help people living with depression. But one thing is for certain: the conversation about video games and mental health is one that is well overdue.