Common wisdom would tell us that depression and video games can only interact in unhealthy ways, as addiction or a dangerous form of self-medication. But what if games can be used to help us become more motivated, more resilient, and maybe a bit happier in the process?
Game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal set out to explore that question recently, and her findings show that it’s less about the games we play or the time we spend playing them, and more about how we approach that time. While excessive escapism can be detrimental to our well-being, looking at games in a different way can have very positive effects.
She wrote about those effects for Slate late last year:
But playing games to change our mood doesn’t have to be problematic. The key is to play your favorite games with a purpose—with a positive goal, such as developing your creativity (in a game like Minecraft), learning to solve new problems (in a game like Portal), strengthening relationships with friends and family (with Words With Friends), getting better at bouncing back from failure (in Call of Duty), or improving your performance in high-pressure situations (with League of Legends).
Researchers have found that this kind of purposeful game play builds self-confidence and real-world problem-solving skills. More important, it has the opposite impact of escapism: Playing to get better at something (anything!) really does help you become less depressed, better connected, and more resilient in real life. That’s because every time you play, you think about the mental, emotional, and social resources you’re building up. You don’t see game play as artificially divorced from “real life.” Instead, you see play as an important way to help you practice real and meaningful skills.
McGonigal also suggests that neurologically speaking, play might be the opposite of depression: playing games stimulates parts of the brain that are normally left understimulated when we’re depressed. She shares research that supports that argument.
In all, the research she highlights goes a long way toward showing that a mindful approach to video games may soon be just what the doctor ordered.