In light of extended quarantine periods and an abundance of free time, the video game industry and gaming community have expanded rapidly. Esports have seen larger and larger prize pools – The International Tournament for DOTA 2 has increased from $18 million in 2015 to over $40 million in 2021 (Esports Tournament Rankings). Whole careers and communities have formed around certain video games, such as Minecraft and the rise of the Dream SMP on Youtube and Twitch as well as the boundary-breaking Among Us era of Twitch. However, negative perceptions around playing video games still prevail through society, with fears around potential for physical injury, escalation from casual playing into video game addiction, and the notorious “video games cause violence” being the most common.
Despite its meteoric rise (you most likely know someone who spends a fair amount of time gaming), the benefits video games provide towards mental health and cognitive improvements are often ignored. Beyond the ways it is currently benefiting individuals, psychologists see a large potential in VR (virtual reality) as a tool for both diagnosing and treating mental illness in the future (Chandler, 2019).
The following cognitive benefits are the results seen in individuals playing action video games in several sittings over long periods of time. Action games are a genre of video games with an emphasis on movement, combat, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time. It has many subgenres, including but not limited to FPS (first-person-shooters), platform games, and fighting games.
Improved ability to multitask: individuals with more than 50 hours of experience playing an action video game improved their score on the Multi-Attribute Task Battery test. This test is a simulation of piloting an aircraft, and requires individuals to monitor multiple inputs at once. These inputs include monitoring fuel levels, responding to particular configurations of lights on an instrument panel, and listening and responding to radio communication. Improved scores on this test indicate improved multitasking capability (Chiappe et al., 2013).
Improved mental flexibility: action video games have also been shown to improve an individual’s ability to switch from one task to another without error, even when there are conflicting demands between tasks (Green et al., 2012).
Reducing dyslexia: in forms of dyslexia derived from problems with visual attention, gaming has been shown to improve dyslexic children’s scores on tests in reading and phonology (Franceschini et al., 2013).
Reduced impulsiveness: gaming has improved individual’s performances in tests designed to measure the responses to non-target stimuli (Dye et al., 2009).
Mental Health Benefits
In addition to the cognitive benefits stemming from action games, role-playing games, action games, and commercial video games can lead to positive mental health outcomes relating to depression and anxiety.
Decreased loneliness: action games, role-playing games, and multiplayer games have helped individuals connect with communities and individuals online, ultimately reducing their loneliness (Zayeni, 2020). Large communities can form around the video game itself, or around content creators (Youtube, Twitch) playing the games.
Reduced depressive mood: many commercially available games, such as Candy Crush, Angry Birds, and Limbo have been shown to promote enjoyment and motivations in players (Pine, 2020).
Reduced general anxiety: commercially available games, role-playing games, exergames, and strategy games such as Rayman, MindLight, and Nintendo Wii Exergames have shown to significantly decrease anxiety during and after play (Zayeni, 2020).
Mood repair: games with progressive goal achievement, such as Portal 2, Mario Kart, and Tap the Frog have shown benefits with mood repair in both time and magnitude (Carissoli, 2019).
COVID-19 anxiety: many commercially available games have been shown to help individuals manage anxieties regarding the COVID-19 pandemic (Viana, 2020).
VR, Games, and Mental Health Benefit Potential
Today, many psychiatrists are turning to VR games as potential tools to diagnose and treat mental illness and help individuals with their mental health (Martin, 2019). Currently, VR has seen the most growth and benefits in exposure therapy – a treatment of anxiety disorders where patients are exposed to anxiety-inducing stimuli in a controlled environment.
One of the benefits VR has over traditional exposure therapy, in which patients act within real-world scenarios, is that therapists have increased control over the intensity of the patient’s experience. Additionally, there is a wider range of scenarios patients can experience in VR than they could in the real-world. Patients can complete treatments in virtual reality, like jumping off progressively higher and higher buildings to combat a fear of heights that they could not in the real-world (Martin, 2019). VR provides an exposure therapy option that is cheaper, safer, and faster than its traditional counterpart (Martin, 2019).
About the Author
Sofia Bae is a senior at Harvard College concentrating in History of Science and Computer Science.
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Green, C.S. & Bavelier, D. (2012). “Learning, Attentional Control, and Action Video Games. Current Biology, 22:R197–R206.
Largest overall prize pools in esports. Esports Tournament Rankings :: Esports Earnings. https://www.esportsearnings.com/tournaments
Martin, S. (2019, June 24). Virtual reality might be the next big thing for mental health. Scientific American Blog Network. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/virtual-reality-might-be-the-next-big-thing-for-mental-health/
Pine, R., Fleming, T., McCallum, S., & Sutcliffe, K. (2020). The effects of casual videogames on anxiety, depression, stress, and low mood: a systematic review. Games Health J, 9(4):255-264.
Viana, R.B., & de Lira, C.A. (2020). Exergames as coping strategies for anxiety disorders during the covid-19 quarantine period. Games Health J, 9(3):147-149.
Zayeni, D., Raynaud, J., & Revet, A. (2020). Therapeutic and preventive use of video games in child and adolescent psychiatry: a systematic review. Front Psychiatry, 11:36.