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Designing Video Games for Mental Health

There are many different flavors of video games – and many critical or conflicting studies on their psychological and social impacts. Articles on Psych Central, for example, include Brain Scans Show Violent Video Games Alter Brain Activity, By Rick Nauert PhD and Video Games May Not Enhance Cognitive Skills After All, By Traci Pedersen.

Gaming is not of any particular interest to me, but I was intrigued with a recent newspaper report about Erin Reynolds, a USC cinematic arts graduate student, and her team who are developing a video game that “uses heart-rate sensors to help players learn to stay calm as they wind their way through a decrepit house filled with their characters’ horrific memories.

“She believes her psychological thriller game, Nevermind, can help people develop ways to cope with stress.”

[From USC competition pushes the limits of modern video games, By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times December 11, 2011.]

The Nevermind site explains their upcoming game:

“You can’t fix stress – it is a constant force in our everyday lives that spans geographic borders and cultures. However, you can fix the unhealthy, knee-jerk responses many people have to stress and prepare people to face inevitable conflict. This is exactly what Nevermind intends to do.

“In this vein, the player’s goal is not to remain in a constant state of calm, rather, it is to force himself to proceed into scenarios he knows will cause stress or fear, experience the natural reactions such scenarios prompt, and then quickly temper his response to return back to a state of calm. In other words, Nevermind rewards ‘true’ bravery.

“When the player becomes stressed or fearful, the game will increase in intensity and difficulty. When the player calms himself, the game returns to its default state. If the player is unable to calm himself, then the game becomes increasingly more difficult and intense…”

The site also emphasizes the game is “not a self-­help program that simply lectures to the player how to handle stress. Rather, it leads him to personally discover how to manage the stress in a way that is specific to them – and provides plenty of opportunities to practice, refine, and make a habit of employing these healthy coping strategies both in and out of the game.”

That sounds very promising, and there are other reports about game or game-like software that can address mental health issues.

Attention retraining

Software that delivers attention retraining – “like really boring computer games,” as Nader Amir, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, describes it, has helped a number of patients diagnosed with social anxiety.

[From Relief from anxiety may be as close as your BlackBerry, Adriana Barton, Globe and Mail, Apr. 03, 2011.]

While the imagery in Nevermind [you can see videos on their site] is richly detailed, other games can be beneficial even with crude graphics, like this screen image from Bejeweled 3 by PopCap Games.

The author of a Washington Post article writes about Gail Nichols, who has “suffered from depression for years.

“When the 49-year-old resident of St. Marys, Kan., cannot sleep, she falls back on a form of entertainment that is gaining increasing credibility as a medical intervention: video games.

“Nichols said she discovered the mental health benefits of video games some years ago during a particularly bad spell of depression.

“She had just started playing a game called Bejeweled, which requires players to move gems into rows based on their color. When she could not get to sleep one night and was tormented by mental pain, she said, she turned on the computer and played the game for hours.”

“In the day, you can find someone to talk to,” Nichols said. “Games are a big help in getting through to the next morning.”

“Nichols liked the game so much that she got in touch with the manufacturer, PopCap Games. The inventors of the game were surprised to hear about its possible mental health benefits, and the company decided to study Bejeweled’s untapped potential systematically.

“In a preliminary study that PopCap commissioned and funded, researchers found that volunteers who played Bejeweled displayed improved mood and heart rhythms compared with volunteers who weren’t playing. The preliminary study was published this year in the Annual Review of Cybertherapy and Telemedicine.”

[From Researchers Explore Mental Health Benefits of Video Games, By Shankar Vedantam, August 18, 2009.]

The photo of Erin Reynolds is from her site Reynoldsphobia. She also helped develop the Disney title Epic Mickey (for the Nintendo Wii), among other titles.

Restoring or enhancing cognitive function

There are also a number of research studies on the potentials for games to enhance brain abilities. Here is an excerpt of one:

“Stanford professor Dr. Shelli Kesler and colleagues recently published a study in the journal Brain Injury demonstrating improvements in cognition following Lumosity training in childhood cancer survivors.

“Twenty-three pediatric cancer survivors completed 40 sessions of Lumosity training. Participants showed significantly increased processing speed, cognitive flexibility, and memory recall. In addition, brain imaging results showed increased activity in the pre-frontal cortex compared to baseline.”

[From Study shows Lumosity training increases frontal lobe function, By Joe Hardy, Lumosity blog December 23, 2010.]

The Lumosity site has a number of other research studies about their games (mostly for people without cognitive problems) and brain training programs that “strategically target brain areas such as memory, attention and processing speed.” The site says over 14 million people use their programs.

Also see my related post: Better Thinking: Brain Games For Cognitive Training.


Designing Video Games for Mental Health

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2011). Designing Video Games for Mental Health. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Dec 2011
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