Video games bring a lot of obvious benefits, like better hand-eye coordination, faster decision making, and making friends. Since the 1980s, psychotherapists and counselors have tried incorporating games into therapy. As expected, games are mostly used in counseling and psychotherapy with children.
In therapy, video games can help with “breaking the ice” and establishing a good relationship between a patient and a therapist, assessing the level of frustration a client can tolerate and the aggression they express is also a possibility. Using games, a therapist can get insight into how a client solves problems, how quickly they make decisions, are they prone to attempting to bend the rules of the game. Games are also effective in learning social skills, since some children find it easier to engage in communication in a multiplayer game, where rules of approaching others are clearly set.
There was a big setback in research of benefits of video games during the 1990s, when mental health research on video games was focused on the relationship between video games and higher levels of aggression, but now we’re seeing more research on the topic of using games in therapy, and there is an alternate viewpoint whereby video games might play an active role in curbing aggressive behavior. Playing games is now a part of programs that aim to lessen middle-school students’ positive attitudes towards violence and increase their intentions to use non-violent strategies.
There are games made especially for therapeutic purposes, for example, some of them use biofeedback – in order to advance the game the player that has problems with anxiety needs to lower their pulse or influence their galvanic skin response.
Treatment for Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) incorporates games as a tool by confronting a feared thought, image or memory associated with a past traumatic event on screen (or VR goggles) for the purpose of decreasing the emotional and physical distress associated with the event. Post-traumatic stress disorder is treated by exposing veterans to a safe war-like environment in shooter games. Driving games have been used for treating fear of driving after an accident and similarly, other games for fears of flying, heights or spiders.
Commercial games are also used as an assessment tool for Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), since many children who seem hyperactive in a traditional school setting are able to inhibit their hyperactivity when playing intrinsically motivating video games.
Different examples include coupling cognitive therapy with a video game to improve emotional dysregulation in clients with bulimia nervosa, even using horror games to elicit complex and transformational forms of pleasure as a complementary therapeutic tool.
Research has shown that elderly individuals who play video games can improve their brain health. This happens because games help them learn new skills and stimulate the brain presumably decreasing their odds of developing conditions that negatively impact their memory, such as dementia.
Of course, this research into the benefits of games and therapeutic practice with games are related to moderate indulgence in games (whatever that is). The next revision of International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) is being updated with, among other things, recognizing excessive video game playing as a mental health disorder similar to alcohol or substance abuse. Research has shown that greater amounts of gaming, lower social competence, and greater impulsivity act as risk factors for becoming a pathological gamer. On the other hand, pathological gaming seems to lead to depression, anxiety, social phobias, and lower school performance. But, researchers are looking at the same data the other way around and finding ways games could help mental health. For example, functional magnetic resonance imaging studies showed that two regions of the brain are hyper-stimulated when playing video games – the region most associated with motivation and goal-orientation, and the region most associated with learning and memory. These findings may lead to using games in the treatment of depression, since these regions are under-stimulated in clinically depressed.
The relationship between gaming and mental health is complex and should not be taken lightly. Games are mostly supplemental techniques used with the supervision and guidance of professionals and should not be taken as self-medication. It’s not like the councilor just says: “Take two hours of GTA after every meal and come see me in two weeks”.