Psychologists and game developers are working together to create video games that boost brain function and provide therapeutic benefits to those suffering from depression and other mental health disorders.
Video games are still more associated with having fun and entertainment rather than anything else. But that is changing, as the industry has become a pioneer in developing new technologies involving sensors, haptics and virtual reality. Developments like the Microsoft Kinect and Oculus Rift, to name a few, offer new possibilities in affecting lives - including health care - beyond just gaming entertainment.
Psychologists and developers are finding out how playing video games can improve mental health. They already know that video games affect the mind in one way or another, but they are looking for concrete ways to harness these emerging gaming technologies to provide therapeutic benefits, including treatments for depression, autism, ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
Contrary to some studies suggesting that video games may cause depression, a group of researchers now claim that video games may actually help fight it.
Neuroscientists at the Brighten Center at the University of California, San Francisco are trying to determine if a simple video game can alleviate symptoms of depression among subjects aged 60 and older.
Their tablet-based game involves the player controlling a creature floating on a ice block while it navigates a river filled with hurdles. The objective is to avoid getting hit by the obstacles while catching green fish as they leap out of the river.
"The game gets at improving people's attention while they're multitasking," Patricia Arean, a clinical psychologist at UCSF, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's similar to problem-solving therapy, getting people to focus on a goal and make a plan. But in this case, the plan you're working on is getting a little alien on a computer screen to navigate through a waterway while tapping on certain colors of fish," she said.
It is this “executive functioning” neural pathway that fails in patients with depression, and researchers hope that games like this can restore this cognitive ability. To know if this neurogaming intervention is effective, they plan to analyze brain scans and changes in mood and behavior in participants. They would compare their findings to a separate group of patients who underwent traditional cognitive behavioral therapy involving face-to-face sessions with therapists.
The researchers believe video games can supplement traditional methods of treating depression, especially for those who do not have ready access to therapists nearby.
"If we could get the treatments into people's hands so they can just download it on an iPad or a phone, that's the ultimate goal for researchers like me," Arean said in her interview with the Chronicle. "The results so far have been sort of mixed. But we're getting better at understanding how these games work."
Studies may have yielded mixed results so far, but that is not stopping companies from tapping the potential of neurogaming in improving mental health. Already, there are various apps and games that claim to boost memory, fight stress, relieve anxiety and manage depression.
Previously available video games that claim to help people suffering from depression, panic attacks and anxiety include SPARX and Depression Quest.
The next generation of video games that can give practical health benefits are featured in an industry exhibition this week held at San Francisco. Delegates and guests at the NeuroGaming Conference and Expo 2014 will discuss “wellness neurogaming products” and “neurosoftware treatments for brain illnesses like memory loss, attention, and emotional issues leveraging game mechanics to improve human health and well being.”
Neurogaming may be the next frontier in digital health, and many people who struggle from depression will benefit if it ever becomes widely adopted.
An estimated 350 million people around the world suffer from depression, making it the foremost cause of disability, according to data from the World Health Organization. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), depression is the top disease affecting women and the seventh in men, said a World Bank report.