Video games could become a low-cost treatment for mental health issues

LIMERICK, Ireland — Video games provide a great source of entertainment for people of all ages, especially when a pandemic is keeping you locked inside all day. Now, researchers in Ireland say Mario and Pac-Man should start pulling double-duty — as mental health counselors. Their study finds commercially available videos games can act as effective low-cost treatments for patients dealing with mental illness.

A team from Lero, the Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software, adds gaming provides more people in need of mental health services with easy access to stigma-free support for conditions like depression and anxiety. Video games are also able to reach patients in areas where treatment options are limited or the cost of care is too expensive.

Lero researcher Dr. Mark Campbell notes there is growing evidence that commercial (or off-the-shelf) video games can improve mental health. His team reviewed existing academic research examining the impact of gaming, specifically among patients dealing with depression and anxiety.

“It is worth considering commercial video games as a potential alternative option for the improvement of various aspects of mental health globally,” Dr. Campbell says in a media release.

Nearly 3 billion people play video games worldwide

Study authors add off-the-shelf video games have one major advantage over standard medical care — the cost. For the 2.7 billion people gaming around the world, many video games are either free to play or available for a one-time, reasonably low price.

“The overall accessibility and pervasiveness of commercial video games within modern society positions them as an invaluable means of reaching individuals with mental health disorders, irrespective of age and sex, and with limited access to mental health care, particularly relevant during the current COVID-19 pandemic,” Campbell explains.

Magdalena Kowal, lead author of the new report, says their research focuses on the financial strain and burden on healthcare services that mental health issues create. Overall, researchers find more than 14 percent of the global population have some sort of mental illness. However, a large portion of these individuals are not getting any treatment for their conditions.

“There is a heightened demand for accessible and cost-effective methods that prevent and facilitate coping with mental health illness. This demand has become exacerbated following the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent increase in mental health disorders, depression and anxiety in particular,” Kowal says.

Virtual reality therapy?

Kowal notes that commercially available Virtual Reality (VR) video games also have a lot of potential for treating mental illness. Study authors find VR headsets would work well with cognitive behavioral techniques that focus on relieving symptoms of depression.

“Given the immersive nature of VR technology and the controllability of the virtual environment, it could be particularly well-suited for use in exposure therapy,” Kowal concludes.

The findings appear in the journal JMIR Serious Games.