Gaming for your Mental Health

Video games have been under attack recently by politicians and the media. President Donald Trump has blamed them for mass shootings and other violent acts, calling for a ban on violent video games.

I could write a book on why placing blame on video games is incorrect and dangerous, but that isn’t what this article is about. I’d rather discuss the positive impacts that gaming can have on mental health.

The first thing to clarify is the common misconception that mental health and mental illness are interchangeable. While the two can be related as many mental illnesses make it difficult to manage your mental health, and poor mental health can increase the risk of mental illness.

When we refer to mental health, we are referring to our mental well-being: things that affect our emotions, thoughts, feelings, perception, and social connections.

Just like with our bodies everyone has different needs when it comes to managing their health, the one thing in common is the need for sustenance. For some people that can be found in jogging, others find it in singing, many find it in being outdoors. For millions of people that sustenance is found in video games.

Why video games? Simple, they’re effective. They have been used to treat depression and anxiety and improving memory function.

There are many successful studies being done on treating depression with game therapy. This has been shown to help depression and anxiety by decreasing negative thoughts and self-talk by playing 20 minutes per day.

AKL-T03 by Akili Interactive

A company called Akili Interactive is currently developing and testing a video game called AKL-T03. The game is has been found to be effective at treating depression in clinical trials and is currently pending FDA approval.

Patricia Arean, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington has been a part of the team developing AKL-T03 as well as other games aimed towards helping other mental health issues stated “The prefrontal cortex makes decisions and then there’s another part of the brain called the anterior cingulate that pays attention to danger in the environment. What happens with depression is that part of the brain, the anterior cingulate, starts to become noisy and pays a little too much attention to danger. It starts to flood the prefrontal cortex with all of this negative information, like, ‘Don’t do that! That person didn’t laugh at your joke. Oh my god, you’re failing!’ So what happens is the prefrontal cortex gets kind of exhausted. It’s dealing with all of this loud information. So they stop communicating. So what we’re doing with the game is basically strengthening the connection between those two parts of the brain.”

Many games highly utilize both sides of the brain, switching quickly between the left and right side. This heavy utilization improves memory, problem solving and the ability to multitask.

Online games have been proven to increase social skills by letting players work together (or against each other). These social skills have been proven to translate directly from online to everyday interactions.

Most of us don’t think about the effects that gaming has on us, we play because it’s fun, not realizing that every minute spent gaming is a minute spent on our mental health.

However, not everything related to video gaming and mental health is positive. Since video games release dopamine, much like any other enjoyable activity, they can become addictive. In 2018 the World Health Organization added Gaming Disorder to their list of diseases. They classify the disorder as having “impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences. ” it is estimated that less than 5% of the population falls under this diagnosis.

Do you use gaming as stress relief?
Do you notice a shift in your overall mood when playing your favorite games?


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