As a developer, you’re likely already aware that video games are a powerful form of media uniquely poised to provide mental health benefits.
Rich social interaction. Engagement. Meaning. Accomplishment. Deep focus. Resilience.
These are just some of the positive outcomes gamers report experiencing as a result of playing video games. Playing games reduces isolation, decreases stress and anxiety, alleviates depressive symptoms, helps process loss and trauma, and improves overall quality of life.
Games allow us to try another way–to change how we move, breathe, feel, and think. For DeepWell’s inaugural Mental Health Game Jam, we’re asking teams to focus their effort on these four mechanics. We recommend you use the following information to help guide the ways you implement one or more of these mechanics into your game during the jam.
Regular physical activity (moderately intense aerobic exercise and muscle strengthening multiple times per week) increases lifespan, reduces risk for chronic diseases/injuries, and alleviates anxiety and depressive symptoms.
Fun and engaging gameplay experiences can motivate players to exercise over the long term and provide them autonomy to exercise at their own pace.
Positive benefits have been found from Just Dance, Shape Up, Zumba Fitness, and Kinect Sports (Short- and longer-term psychological and behavioral effects of exergaming and traditional aerobic training: A randomized controlled trial: International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology: Vol 0, No 0 (tandfonline.com)), as well as for Wii Fit and Wii Tennis (https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.552416/full).
Slowed breathing is linked to improved health outcomes because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, a system that helps our body rest. Activation of this system lowers heart rate and improves digestion.
Slowed, controlled breathing in multiple forms (targeting a 6 second inhale and exhale), when practiced regularly, can improve sleep quality and reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression.
A video game could produce these positive health effects by incorporating breathing practices into gameplay, providing the player with feedback to attend to their breath and slow their breathing rate. After playing Android games with paced breathing, players had better breath control and performed better in stressful tasks (Gaming Away Stress: Using Biofeedback Games to Learn Paced Breathing | IEEE Journals & Magazine | IEEE Xplore).
FEEL (I.E., EMOTION REGULATION)
Emotion regulation strategies include building self-awareness of emotions, learning to look at stressful situations from another perspective, and practicing self-compassion.
Video games can help players regulate emotions by presenting them with emotional situations in which they can practice their coping skills by using avatars. One study reduced anxiety using a game called Mindlight (In-Game Play Behaviours during an Applied Video Game for Anxiety Prevention Predict Successful Intervention Outcomes - PubMed (nih.gov)).
THINK (I.E., COGNITIVE RESTRUCTURING)
Cognitive restructuring is a primary tenet of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the most well-researched and -validated form of psychotherapy. It aims to help people reframe or change perspectives as a way to replace self-defeating, automatic thoughts with alternative ways of perceiving ideas, events, and situations–ways that are more accurate and healthier.
The act of cognitive restructuring requires identifying dysfunctional thinking patterns and then changing them to be more accurate. For example, overgeneralization involves drawing broad conclusions based upon limited information. Countering this way of thinking involves recognizing that one event, or small number of experiences, do not necessarily indicate a pattern or larger truth. This is done by collaboratively examining the evidence for cognitive distortion.
Successful cognitive restructuring requires practice. Multiple aspects of this process could be incorporated into narrative games.
For more information regarding common cognitive distortions: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470241/.