Stimulation and Depression: How Video Games can Help Fight Mental Illness

Jordan Heal

In the wake of world Mental Illness Day this piece is a tribute to how video games can help anybody struggling with depression and other Mental Illness in a constructive way.

In a society where illnesses such as depression are becoming more and more frequent issues for people, we are also living in an era where video games are at soaring high for popularity.

Surprisingly, one of the best activities to help combat Mental Illnesses is playing video games. Games are incredibly immersive and allow us to tune out the real world, if only for a temporary amount of time.

Video games offer an entirely new, fantastical, fresh world that enables people to experience things they can’t in their own lives. The representation of new worlds help engage our brains and stimulate them. There are two areas of the brain that become stimulated when engaging with a game world.

The Reward Pathway and The Hippocampus

The Reward Pathway is typically associated with motivation and achieving set goals. For example, the first level of any game is easy to help players learn the ropes. As the game progresses, so do the level’s difficulties. The difficulty raises as players get to grips and engage further with the game.

Through this, the further engagement players get in tandem with rising difficulties, the further they seek to achieve a goal by completing a level at a set difficulty. As a result, we anticipate success following a completion of a set task or a set level.

A classic and timeless example would be the old Crash Bandicoot games. With each passing level, the run gets harder and requires players to engage and learn how to adapt to the harder levels.

The Hippocampus is associated with learning new skills or developing new coping mechanisms. The Hippocampus is intrinsically linked with the Reward Pathway when considering video games. As players adapt and progress within a game world they are continuously learning new skills and mechanisms to help them adjust.

RPG’s are a perfect example of this. Players anticipate success when they level up their character. Then, players are able to adapt to the games increasing difficulty by levelling specific skill trees to suit their play style. Both areas of the brain are being stimulated by a progressing up a single level.

The stimulation that arises from these video games enables the brain to adapt. We can then anticipate success. Learn new skills. Gain new strategies to cope with situations. Consequently, we can then transfer these new skills into our own lives.

So, why are these two areas so important?

The hyper-activation of both these areas of the brain are important, because they are both under-stimulated when a person is clinically depressed. Games, therefore, can help our brain a lot. People will feel, generally, more happy after playing a Video Game. Parts of the brain that were previously not being stimulated enough to help you feel right, are now being activated.

Though, this is not to say, that video games are a definitive solution. Nor, should they be played excessively. Playing them under the guise of escapism can cause problems. Total isolation can lead to further issues like anxiety.

There is no doubt that video games can help people stimulate parts of their brains that have been previously under-stimulated. A viable solution for games to help people would be to play them at a limited number hours in any given week to ensure the stimulation of both the Reward Pathway and the Hippocampus.

It also worth noting, that some studies find that playing action genre video games like shooters, can have negative effects on the Hippocampus. It appears, that the best games to play to help stimulate both the Reward Pathway and the Hippocampus would be games that make you actively solve puzzles, find hidden treasures or anything that has a specific goal. Any games that require players to continuously improve as they progress are recommended to help combat depression amongst other Mental Illnesses.

Examples can range from The Witcher 3 all the way to Angry Birds. The reasoning behind this is because the determination to keep trying is what stimulates the neurological pattern to activate. This tendency can be seen as an addiction, which is why it is important to stress that games can only be beneficial when players are strict on themselves as to when and how much they play one.

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