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Video Games and Mental Health

Filament Games | Educational Game Developer

Today, we’re stepping away from our usual focus on games for learning, instead highlighting a burgeoning field of serious games research: the intersection of mental health and gaming. Research supports the potential of video games as an appealing, engaging, and effective tool for promoting both mental health treatment outcomes and awareness among the general public – here’s how:

Games for Treatment

Much like how learning games can be harnessed by educators to aid and enhance their instruction, serious games can be utilized by professionals in the mental health field as a method of engaging with their clients during treatment.

A 2012 study published in the British Medical Journal attempted to measure the effectiveness of SPARX, a game-based treatment designed specifically as a self help intervention for youth living with depression. Across 187 treatment-seeking adolescents – half given the game-based treatment, the others traditional face-to-face counseling – researchers found that participants who received the game-based SPARX treatment experienced a greater reduction in their measured levels of depression when compared to their peers. These early results shine a promising light on the potential of game-based interventions as a compliment to traditional treatment methods – however there remains much research to be done prior to widespread adoption of such tools.

iThrive Games, a fellow inhabitant of the game-based learning space, is entirely focused on the intersection of games and mental health, striving to foster mental wellness and social and emotional growth through meaningful gameplay experiences. Of course, the use of games in treatment must be thoughtfully and properly integrated – some patients may find the use of video games as treatment as “trivializing or inappropriate” and prefer more traditional treatment methods, and professionals who do choose to embrace games with their patients must ensure that their selected games are high-quality and relevant to their client’s needs.

For more on how games can be implemented in counseling, check out this article from Bradley University.

Games for Advocacy

Throughout much of gaming history, mental illnesses have often been portrayed as villainous – whether through frightening characters such as Far Cry 3’s Vaas or through harmful depictions of asylums in games like Batman: Arkham Asylum. 

Regrettably, these frequent instances breed and reinforce harmful stigmas towards both individuals and mental health professionals as well. This is slowly beginning to change, however, thanks to an increased number of new games choosing to avoid archaic portrayals of mental illnesses as “evil,” instead working offer more complex and authentic portrayals of mental illness through characters and scenarios designed in tandem with subject matter experts and individuals with lived experience.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one such game, with developer Ninja Theory working closely alongside neuroscientists, mental health specialists, and real patients in order to more accurately develop main character Senua, who herself experiences symptoms of psychosis as a key feature of the game’s storyline. Other recent titles like indie platformer Celeste and interactive fiction Depression Quest attempt to tactfully integrate depression into their respective narrative and gameplay mechanics, offering players more complex, holistic, and authentic representations of mental illnesses. 

For more examples of games which strive to achieve authentic representations of mental illnesses, check out this video from our friends at Extra Credits:


Explore even more ways video games can foster a positive impact: 

How Educational Video Games Can Help Foster Social and Emotional Learning
VR for Nonprofits: Simulated Experiences, Real-World Impact
Playful Philanthropy: Extra Life & Other Charitable Gaming Events

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