How Games Help: Mental Health


Many studies have delved into the potential health benefits that video games can provide. Some of these studies resulted in clear findings, but many tested their thesis in a way that led to questionable findings.

A study by Primack and Colleagues (American Journal of Preventative Medicine) analyzed 1,452 articles that examined the health benefits of games. Of  those 1,452, only 38 met their criteria as scientifically valid enough to draw conclusions from. Based on their findings they concluded that video games improved:

  • 69% of psychological therapy outcomes

  • 59% of physical therapy outcomes

  • 50% of physical activity outcomes

  • 46% of clinician skills outcomes

  • 42% of health education outcomes

  • 42% of pain distraction outcomes

  • 37% of disease self-management outcomes.

Given the findings from this study, and other more specific studies, there are several clear areas we’d like to focus on.

Anxiety Relief and Mindfulness

Feeling trapped in an anxious state of mind can be a nightmarish experience. In terms of treating anxiety there are many important steps, and there are aspects of anxiety that can be treated well with gaming. Games often excel in moments of extreme distress where a feeling of anxiety simply needs to be alleviated in order to allow someone to continue forward.

Studies have shown benefits from games in distracting someone from an anxious moment with biofeedback and mindfulness mechanics.

Playing a game that emphasizes balancing multiple stimuli in a way that demands your focus has proven to reduce anxiety in high-risk youth. Having a game space you can enter to focus, breath, and let take center stage, help push pressing negative emotions aside.

"Because virtual reality is unusually attention grabbing, and blocks patients view of distracting information in the real world environment ... Mindfulness skills training using VR may enhance the effectiveness of the previously observed outcomes of traditional mindfulness training."

- Navarro-Haro et al.

In another study focused on a mindfulness game in VR participants reported significantly less sadness, anger, and anxiety, and reported being significantly more relaxed. And another mobile game designed for mindfulness practice, showed increased positivity and reduced depressive symptoms following play.  

Trauma Negation

Using games as a way to focus your mind on an external stimuli following a traumatic event has resulted in some very interesting findings. In one study, people in the emergency room after a traffic accident were asked to play the game Tetris for a short period of time (a control group engaged in a different activity).

The results of this experiment showed fewer intrusive memories overall for those who engaged with the Tetris treatment, and time-series analyses showed that the traumatic thoughts appearing over time also decreased faster in this population.

In this experiment these findings were particularly interesting as it represented a very low intensity intervention, when treating trauma often demands higher intensity approaches. In this case, using a game provided a more friendly, light touch, and proven effective means of supporting mental health.

Social Skills

A variety of studies have shown several potential social skill benefits from playing video games: everything from how collaborative activities can increase outcomes, to how we can understand each other better through gameplay.

Several experiments conducted by John Valez and his colleagues have shown that cooperative play can (at least in the short term) lead to an increase in how likely an individual is to help, seek to understand, and work together with someone outside of the game itself.

Another interesting study showed that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder were able to use an MMO (a massive multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft) to build up emotional comprehension skills. Having a safe and fictional world within which to explore emotions proved an interesting and valuable tool in this context. Individuals in this study were able to clearly identify their own feelings and the feelings of their friends within the game environment. One of the most interesting components of this study was how the emotional intelligence skills gained carried over into the real world through reflection and application.

How Do We Build Better Health Games?

One of the greatest concerns currently facing the creation of games with potential health benefits is the ability to properly test and drawn conclusions from findings overtime. The world around us is filled with a bounty of apps and other products that claim great health benefits, often without a properly rigorous scientific backing to those claims.

The study done by Primack and colleagues which collected findings from those 1,452 studies found that only 38 met their criteria. The researchers then analyzed what these types of games and studies can do better to improve that ratio in the future. There key suggestions were:

  • More of these studies should use randomized control trials to mitigate concerns of correlation versus causation.

  • Studies should employ longer follow-up periods that can evaluate how long effects last and what those effects are.

  • A standardized series of measurement tools should be used to help us all understand the quality of the outcomes of a study.


How Games Help: Cognitive Tasks

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How do games motivate learning? What benefits have been tested? And how do you design the best game for learning outcomes?

Marguerite Dibble