Forget the moral panic, gaming and impact games can stimulate mental wellbeing

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No matter how much you enjoy gaming, chances are you’ve felt a nagging sense of guilt about playing at one point or another. Maybe it’s the result of having your parents tell you to get outside and play when you were growing up. Or maybe it’s just a societally-induced sense that spending a couple of hours immersed in a virtual world every day might not be the best thing for your mental health.

While there are always risks involved in allowing any hobby to become an obsession, we now know that much of the moral panic around gaming has been overwrought. In fact, a growing body of research shows that gaming can actually be very positive for mental health. It’s also becoming increasingly clear that those effects can also be magnified through the potential of impact games.

So, as people around the world look to address widespread mental health crises, there’s a strong argument to be made that they should add gaming and impact games to their toolkits.

Tetris, Animal Crossing, and the positive impact of games

Before digging into how games can be used to stimulate mental wellbeing, it’s worth noting that our understanding of the subject is evolving all the time.

Just five years ago, for example, researchers discovered that Tetris could help prevent post-traumatic stress symptoms. In coming to that finding, researchers demonstrated that the survivors of motor accidents had fewer intrusive memories if they played Tetris (accompanied by a psychological intervention) within six hours of being admitted to the hospital.

More recently, research from Oxford University showed that people who played Nintendo’s popular Animal Crossing title or EA’s Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville reported a greater sense of wellbeing. The study was a landmark in demonstrating that playing games can have a positive impact.

It’s worth emphasizing that those profound effects were found to be produced by games that were designed with no other intended purpose than to be fun and entertaining. More so, the examples provided involved players interacting with games on a two-dimensional screen (even if the games are rendered in 3D). What then might the effects be when engaging in a fully immersive environment like virtual reality (VR), with games that are specifically designed to promote wellbeing? 

Virtual sanity

It’s a question worth asking. After all, we know that VR is already applied extensively to contexts like industrial training in order to safely take people through scenarios that they might encounter in their working environments. Why then shouldn’t the same be true when it comes to promoting mental wellbeing?

As it turns out, it’s a question that people have been asking for a lot longer than you might imagine. In fact, US clinical psychologist Barbara Rothbaum first started using VR to help people conquer psychological disorders as far back as the mid-1990s. Since then, the field has evolved considerably, with clinicians using VR to treat everything from depression and addiction to ADHD and anxiety.

Many of these therapies, however, are based on bringing real-world exposure therapy techniques to the virtual world. While there’s undoubtedly value in that, there are still people who might be resistant to even that kind of exposure.

Here, introducing the principles of impact gaming can help. Simply put, impact games, like serious games, are games that are created for a purpose beyond just pure entertainment. Most of us are familiar with them in the educational space, but they also have extensive applications in mental wellbeing.

We know that because we’ve experienced it first-hand. Commissioned by Maestro Games, we developed a proof of concept using classical music in virtual reality to create a healing experience for those struggling with mental health. More specifically, the game concept aims to help treat PTSD through an immersive music-conducting experience. Early testers report feeling more in control of their emotions after going through the experience.

The supplemental value of games

Of course, none of this is to say that games should replace traditional modes of therapy or mental wellbeing tools. But with even traditional games demonstrating a positive influence on mental wellbeing, it would be foolish to ignore them.

Rather, healthcare providers should work with researchers and game developers to add impact games to their treatment toolkits. As a supplementary tool to which people are naturally very receptive, it’s difficult to beat. Given how much we’ve learned in a relatively short period of time and the promising strides that have already been made, it’s clear that gaming and impact games should play a growing role in promoting mental wellbeing going forward.

In light of the immense mental health crises plaguing many parts of the world right now, the need for impact games and gaming to service that role has perhaps never been more pressing.

Photo credit: wavebreakmedia / Shutterstock

Glenn Gillis is CEO, Sea Monster.

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