Video games are surrounded by a stigma that they are inherently bad from a mental health perspective. This negative perception led to the World Health Organization classifying video game addiction as a recognizable psychological disorder earlier this year. But there is a widening group of people, including those who work in mental health, who believe games can be an important and positive tool for those dealing with mental health issues.
This was the subject of a panel at this weekend’s PAX West game convention in Seattle, called Roll for a Sanity Check: Games and Mental Health. The panelists, all of whom suffered from some type of mental health issues, were unanimous in that games can be a powerful coping mechanism, whether you need to relax or face your fears.
The panel consisted of gaming industry professionals and mental health experts. The games they discussed were both digital and physical. The panelists said they suffered from a laundry list of conditions throughout the group, including bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and chronic insomnia.
Dr. Barbara S. McCann, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences from the University of Washington, said she became intrigued by games as a coping device after hearing a news story about “Space Invader Thumb,” a phrase that was coined to describe a repetitive stress injury from playing the game.
“I had always played games as a way to cope,” she said. “I started with pinball and moved on to the early games like Space Invaders. When I heard how people were studying games from a negative standpoint, it made think about ways games could be positive, as well.”
This first spark of interest has played a huge role in her career and how she helps her patients.
Other panelists including Tifa Robles, a product marketing manager for Xbox, Liz Leo, a creative producer at Wizards of the Coast, and Robert Schuster, also from Wizards of the Coast, said they use games mainly as a way to calm down when feeling symptoms of anxiety. They mentioned that most of their gaming for that purpose happens on their mobile devices.
“The great thing about app games,” said Schuster, “is that you have them with you all the time. You don’t need a console or a TV to quickly put yourself back into a better mental state.”
Dr. McCann also praised mobile games, especially augmented reality games like Pokémon Go or Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, because they encourage the player to “get out and do things,” which can be hugely beneficial, but also a challenge for those suffering from depression or social anxiety disorder.
Leo added that the types of games that help her relax are open-ended resource management games like Stardew Valley, developed by Seattle developer Eric Barone, aka Concerned Ape, which tasks the player with running a farm and interacting with nearby villagers at their own pace.
Jimmy Chi, a support operations lead at Humble Bundle, pointed to the growing number of games in which the goal is much more simple than in traditional games. He brought up a game called Pet the Pup at the Party, where the player is placed in a party where he or she doesn’t know anyone and is encouraged to cope by finding dogs throughout the house to pet. It’s a way to help the gamer feel more comfortable in a new social setting.
But the panel’s suggestions didn’t solely consist of relaxing games. Sometimes, they said, a different way to cope with your problems is to look them straight in the face and try to relate to characters in games who are going through the same issues you are. They all recommended a game called Ten Candles, a tabletop game where the end of the world is imminent and the player is tasked with telling the story of the character in his or her last few hours of life.
“It’s a real exercise in bringing closure to something and finding peace with it, which can be applied to something you might be dealing with yourself… except for the end-of-the-world part,” Leo said.
Another game in that same vein is That Dragon, Cancer, which was brought up by Schuster, who had been dealing with health issues for his own child recently. In that game, the player follows the four-year fight of a child with cancer. “But make sure you’re in the right frame of mind before you play it,” he warned, after saying that it made him feel like “I’m not alone.”
In fact, not feeling alone was another major topic of the panel, including the sense of community around games and how important that can be as a support system. The toxic elements of gaming communities are often at the forefront of the discussions, but the positive aspects outweigh the negative, according to the panelists.
“Whether they’re people online whom you’ve never met, or those sitting around the table playing Magic: The Gathering or Dungeons and Dragons, the people you meet through gaming can be as valuable a resource as anything else,” said Robles.