Games in Healthcare

FWD News: Video Games Promoting Mental Health

A Senior Citizen Playing WiiIndividuals 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. Read More...

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."

She studied a group of 36 participants of an average age of 82.6 years old, all in general good health. Sixteen were asked to play Nintendo Wii games for an hour a week, while the remaining 12 watched an hour, over the course of ten weeks. Those who played Wii games reported higher positive moods than the TV-watching group and made such comments as feeling "more a part of things" or feeling "more in" with the younger generation, creating a greater sense of self and purpose.

"There was an older gentleman who came to play a session with his old bowling trophies," said Kahlbaugh. "For him, playing the Wii was a way to recapture the fun and sense of achievement he had had in the past." Some participants were eager to continue playing and have set up weekly sessions with volunteers.

Secondly, Dr. Dilip V. Jeste of the University of California, San Diego, found that subsyndromal depression—more common than major depression in seniors and associated with significant suffering, functional disability and increased medical need—could be minimized thanks to actives games.

In his study, Jeste had 19 participants ages 63-94 with subsyndromal depression play an tennis, bowling, baseball, golf or boxing on the Nintendo Wii during 35-minute sessions, three times a week. His research was published in the March 2010 issue of the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry.

"More than one-third of the participants had a 50-percent or greater reduction of depressive symptoms," said Jeste. "Many had a significant improvement in their mental health-related quality of life and increased cognitive stimulation."

Games like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 can Help Veterans Cope with PTSDGames like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 can Help Veterans Cope with PTSD

Jayne Gackenbach, a psychologist at Grant MacEwan University, studied the impact on soldiers who played long hours of "hardcore" video games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Her research looked at 98 mentally healthy soldiers and classified them into high and low-gaming groups to examine the differences in their dreams.

She found that those who played more "hardcore" games had a better ability to control and fight back violence in their dreams than those who did not. For those who played casual games or none at all, these dreams would have more negative reactions. "The low-end gamers were sadder, angrier and more fearful [in real life]," said Gackenbach.

The researcher hopes to study the effects of gaming in soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as well, since nightmares are a classic symptom of the condition. Her study seems to indicate that playing a large amount of battle-intensive games would help sufferers of the disorder better fight back.

This theory is already being applied by some veterans like Tyler Jones, who recently recounted his own experience using video games as a coping tool for PTSD, online.

"I returned from my second tour in Iraq in September 2005, and my mind wasn't right. Nightmares kept me awake all night," he writes. "My doctor (...) diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, stemming from my time in combat operations in Iraq."

"When I told him I enjoyed playing video games, he recommended that I play video games, particularly military-style first-person shooters (FPS) as part of my therapy regimen for PTSD. (...) [V]ideo games would also allow me to relive traumatic experiences on my terms. I had the power to turn off the game when it became too intense, a power obviously not available in combat. It's like a form of exposure therapy."

Other researchers are turning to video games to help people dealing with anxiety treat themselves. Using an experimental method called "attention retaining" individuals can curb their tendency to dwell on the negative.

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.

Dr. Nader Amir, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, led a randomized controlled trial, published in 2009 in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, with patients diagnosed with social anxiety. Participants each received less than three hours of attention retraining spread over four weeks and after the study, half of those treated no longer met the diagnostic criteria for social anxiety.