Games may ease depression, anxiety in players


After a long day at work, Cheri Plevek loves to sit in front of her computer and load up her favorite video game.  

"I definitely feel it like it does relax and de-stress me," she said.

So when Plevek heard about a new breed of games designed to help her fight her lifelong battle against depression and anxiety, she had to give them a try.

"You have quests that you do and you earn points by doing something as simple as getting up out of your chair and getting moving, to calling a friend, hugging yourself," she said.

According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 15 million Americans suffer from major depressive disorder and 40 million from an anxiety disorder.  Psychologists are looking at these video games as a new way to reach those who need help. 

"A lot of them look exactly the same as games that someone could play just for fun. So they may have cartoon characters, they could have missions, but embedded in that game are treatment mechanisms," said Tracy Dennis, Professor of Psychology at Hunter College.

Dennis designed one such game called Personal Zen. She says preliminary findings show after playing the game for 20 minutes the brain starts processing negative information differently.  Her belief? 

"We can train an anxious person to pay less attention to threat, to pay more attention to positive things in the game and then that eventually transfers to how they look at, and pay attention in, the real world," Dennis explained.

It's an idea that's caught the attention of other mental health professionals as well. The NIH is funding a study to research the effectiveness of one game saying, "Gaming technologies may offer promising new ways to supplement traditional medical care."    

Doctor Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist with Cleveland Clinic, agrees. He believes that games could appeal to patients who are reluctant to seek out treatment.    

"I think people resist less if it feels like a game, if it feels like fun. And we can train people even while they're having fun," Bea said.

However, Bea is concerned about some people underestimating the seriousness of their illness and downloading the game instead of seeking professional help.  He also has another concern.

"The game itself might not be tailored enough to their specific condition so again we may be missing the target if we don't have some guidance on what the real target is," Bea added.

Plevek says these games are a great complement to her regular therapy and has no plans to power down anytime soon.  

"When you add in the activities, quests, and other things that help you raise your mood and feel better about yourself, it's just a joy, a joy to play," she said.

Both Dennis and Bea agree that more research is needed before doctors will start prescribing these games for treatment. In the meantime however, anyone can try them out by downloading the apps or playing through a social media site like Facebook.

Links to games:

SuperBetter (the game being studied by the NIH): https://www.superbetter.com

Personal Zen (the game designed by Dr. Tracy Dennis) http://www.personalzen.com

Depression Quest http://www.depressionquest.com

Spark http://linkedwellness.com/play-sparx-the-video-game-for-depression/