Game on: Study shows VR and video games can help fight depression

How gaming can be used as a mental health treatment for youths and seniors alike.

How gaming can be used as a mental health treatment for youths and seniors alike

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Dodging flesh-starved zombies through a haunted house. Tearing through crime-ridden streets in a stolen convertible. Terminating barbaric alien aggressors in remote galaxies. If these sound more like opportunities to explore moral relativism (or just night terrors) than mental health treatments, you're half right. They're hugely popular video game premises and, vicious or not, they may also hold the key to alleviating the equally ruthless suffering that comes with depression.

It may please the gamers out there that researchers at the University of Washington have been treating depression with video games. Project: EVO aims to "improve focus and attention at a basic neurological level" through the problem-solving aspects of gaming. And aside from improved cognition function like attention span (something that gets rocky in depression), subjects also reported a fortuitous boost in mood. The results were even better in participants with moderate depression versus mild. They experienced more jollification through gamification. Treatment in game form goes deeper than just managing symptoms. Ultimately, gameplay ends up reshaping some of the trickier cognitive distortions linked to depression. Brush those Cheetos off your chest with pride, gamer, you're doing just fine.

The study echoes what other studies have confirmed: video games are really good for you. With gamers and non-gamers alike waiting with bated breath for every new generation of VR headset and the ubiquity of gaming platforms like the much anticipated Nintendo Switch, that's good news. Gaming platforms aren't going anywhere. That we can draw real benefits and a sounder well-being from escaping into the virtual worlds they afford, is gravy. 

The minimum treatment-dictated gameplay, on a phone or tablet, was five times a week for 20 minutes--though many played for longer. No surprise there; reminder to the uninitiated: video games are super fun. No doubt, fighting depression while heroically battling dinosaurs or Viking hordes from an armchair is a heck of alot more enjoyable than answering questions of the "and how did that make you feel" variety.

Researchers are hopeful for the broader implications as well. Project: EVO is currently in clinical trials for a whole gamut of crushing cognitive disorders like Alzheimer's disease and traumatic brain injury and an FDA approval for pediatric attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may be imminent. The mental health applications of gaming are being applied to more than just youth too; Rendever, a startup out of Boston, hopes to assuage loneliness and improve mental well-being in seniors by offering them virtual reality bucket lists. With nothing but a VR headset and a smartphone, seniors are off experiencing museum walkthroughs, sky-diving adventures and Grand Canyon canoe trips. A welcome option to those with a willing spirit but a weak physique. They can even visit their old neighborhoods via Google Street View (I've done it, it's a real trip - pun intended).

Isolation in the elderly has been shown to exacerbate mental decline and go hand in hand with depression. In long-term care facilities like nursing homes, depression affects a whopping 20% to 37% of the population. Dennis Lally, one of the founders of Rendever, say he thinks those numbers are likely higher. Encouragingly, though, Lally also says his early data confirms a "more than 30% increase in happiness", right after they cross a tour off their VR bucket list. That's a big jump in mood without ever having to worry about changing into orthopedic footwear.

The tours get seniors talking. Lally explains they're excited and want to share their experiences. The same way you would if you just got back from a proper vacation. It's a happy side effect. Most gaming communities are interactive and highly social thanks to the internet and headsets that let you talk to other gamers during gameplay. I'm imaging an old guy who was actually in WWII trash talking some kid over a headset while they play COD (Call of Duty is a massively popular Axis vs. Allies video game). "Darn kids with your new fangled contraptions. I got your D-day right here!!" Ahh, brothers in arms, fighting the good fight.

If the winter blahs are getting you down, go see about buying a gaming console or a VR headset. A significant mood boost may just be a platoon tour away. Or a thwarted alien invasion away. Whatever toggles your controller.

Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen.