How Video Games Are Fighting Mental Illness

Typically, video games fight mental illness with knives and steampunk, but there may be a better way.
Typically, video games fight mental illness with knives and steampunk, but there may be a better way.
Alice: The Madness Returns

There are lots of people that will tell you that video games rot the mind and encourage violent and deranged behavior. Most of these will focus on titles like the Grand Theft Auto, or on the objectification of women in mainstream games that reinforces rape culture, or simply remark that actively participating in what is often brightly colored serial murder can't be mentally healthy and might be addictive.

The jury is still out on the subject, but the bright side is that video games are starting to make in-roads as a tool for helping combat mental illness. Sometimes in very interesting and innovative ways.

The first is through awareness. The recent suicide of Robin Williams and the sometimes callous and cruel remarks from observers should be all the proof we need that depression is still poorly understood by much of the general population. To say nothing of diseases like obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia.

Doris C. Rusch of DePaul University thinks video games can change that. After all, it's an art form that is unique because it forces the player to participate rather than simply watch or experience the production. She's put together several games that replicate the symptoms of severe mental illness in order to try and share those experiences with the general population through the metaphor of a game.

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How Video Games Are Fighting Mental Illness

There's Elude, a simple sidescroller that plays like a 2D version of Journey. In it, a young man in grey wanders a bleak world. The only way out is to continuously call out to the small white birds as you climb a seemingly endless tree. Each attempt to reach out activates a little more color and power, but it can be a long slow march through the miasma of despair.

Or if you want to know the horror of OCD you might like to try Into Darkness. It's even more simple, yet remarkably terrifying. You're forced to combat an encroaching darkness by walking consecutive circles over and over and over again. Fail, and the darkness catches you, but every step you take in the ritual covers you more and more with mud and dirt and disgust.

Games like this are small scale projects that are little more than personal projects at this point. Hopefully they can start Tripe A game studios thinking on how they might address mental illness more fully in future titles. God knows, mental illness could use the help after spending so many decades being used as an excuse to shoot bad guys in games.

Aside from awareness, games have been shown to be helpful in the course of treatment itself. In fact, we have the one and only Mario to prove the point.

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This was the key to happiness? Who knew? I mean, aside from everyone... everyone knew.
This was the key to happiness? Who knew? I mean, aside from everyone... everyone knew.
Super Mario 64

In a study published in Molecular Psychiatry last October, a team of scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany tested to see how gaming might affect brain growth. They had 23 young adults with little to no previous gaming experience play Super Mario 64 (It's apparently still 1996 in Germany) for 30 minutes a day for two months, then matched MRIs of their brains against a control group of 25 that did not play.

The result was a noticeable increase in the right hippocampal formation, right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and bilateral cerebellum. Increases were more marked in players that expressed a desire to keep gaming after the allotted time, meaning those that were enjoying the game saw better results (Side note: I would pay good money to see this test replicated with the criminally terrible Superman 64 rather than one of the greatest games ever made).

Lead author of the study, Simone Kühn, PhD, believes that this shows gaming might be a healthy exercise in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder since patients suffering from PTSD show deficits in their hippocampal structure. The same might be true for schizophrenia for the same reasons.

And that's just with an off the shelf title, not even something designed specifically for treatment. However, that avenue is being explored as well.

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How Video Games Are Fighting Mental Illness
Into Darkness

It's called neurofeedback, and it's been around for almost a century. It's never been the most respected science, but the last decade has shown more and more people looking into its applications.

Essentially, neurofeedback uses sensors that display brainwave activity to the person being studied, then using that visual display they are trained to alter their brain waves. It's supposed to help people regulate brain function.

The United States military in particular seems quite keen on the idea as a treatment for PTSD, but theoretically there's no reason to assume that the practice wouldn't work on everything from anxiety to addiction. The goal now is to use specially designed games to allow the patient to interpret the displays in an easier manner. For instance, rather than EEG lines you would see a rocket ship, and using your thoughts you would pilot the rocket ship to safety. Safety, in this case, being the desired range of brain waves to help overcome your illness.

It sounds like quack science (Always be leery when someone claims something will cure everything from double vision to autism), but the military says that it's seen remarkable results from the practice. If so, imagine the minds that gave us Mario using their beloved hero and expertise in partnership with neuroscientists to craft virtual worlds where the human mind can be used to defeat its own internal enemies.

That would definitely be thinking with portals.

Jef has a new story, a tale of headless strippers and The Rolling Stones, available now in Broken Mirrors, Fractured Minds. You can also connect with him on Facebook.

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