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Health pickups and heart containers: play keeps us sane

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In East Carolina, nestled quietly in the college of health is a group of people who all share a commonality. These people experience depression and anxiety as what is called a ‘comorbid’ condition - that is to say both together. There’s something else they share as well - they’re all playing Bejeweled. And it’s making them better.  

In the applied psychophysiology lab where students and scientists hook people up to sensors and screens with the serious intention of improving their wellbeing, Dr Carmen Russoniello has overseen a year long investigation into the efficacy of ‘casual’ games when it comes to reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. The results have been compelling: an average 57% reduction in depression symptoms among players, and significant reductions in anxiety.

Dr Russoniello believes the findings support ‘the possibility of using prescribed casual video games for treating depression and anxiety’ - this is incredible. We’ve recently conducted our own pilot study for Flowy and found similarly positive results. People playing Flowy in our randomised control trial saw a measurable decrease in panic, anxiety and hyperventilation behaviours and a significant increase in quality of life.

When Dr Russoniello suggests that ‘Given that only 25% of people who suffer from depression are receiving treatment, it seems prudent to make these low cost, readily accessible games available to those who need them.’ I can hardly restrain myself from doing a sort of celebratory jig. These guys get it! In the UK only 15% of those who experience comorbid depression and anxiety seek treatment. Given that treatments exist, are effective and are free in the UK, that seems counterintuitive to me. Why do so many people suffer alone? What is it about entering the health care system that we find so difficult?

Studies do exist that find time spent gaming is linked with depression, anxiety and social phobias. For a long time there has existed a stereotype of the basement-dwelling, socially inept gamer. A person who is turning away from ‘real life’ and quietly destroying themselves in a dark room behind a glowing screen. Faced with a statistical correlation between these symptoms and the habit of playing games it is easy to assume the medium itself is at fault - games are bad for their players. I want to suggest a different story. Perhaps these people are finding ways to treat themselves.

Humans are good, very good, at coping. We use all sorts of strategies to try to keep ourselves emotionally level in the face of the stresses of life. You probably already do this, whether it’s eating a huge bowl of pasta when you get home after a difficult day, or hitting the gym to blow off some steam. Generally speaking it’s more helpful to recognise and challenge or accept the difficult emotions that lead to coping strategies - but we aren’t all zen masters! Coping is important and the ways we deal with stresses are a part of how we take care of ourselves.

Jason Rowe’s alter-ego in the MMO Star Wars Galaxy

Jason Rowe’s alter-ego in the MMO Star Wars Galaxy

Can we challenge our conception of gaming to recognise that it can be beneficial to play? I spent a fair amount of time in virtual worlds in my adolescence and many around me were keen to remonstrate with me about the apparent trade off I was making - the sacrifices they felt I was making in order to engage in a reality I found more accommodating. It's easy to make judgements about people who eschew what we think of as 'natural' reality but perhaps there are good reasons for many to embrace a different lifestyle wholeheartedly.

Simon Fox