This article is from the Quest Psychology magazine. We often think that depressed young people and games are a bad combination. But there is also scientific evidence to the contrary: games can help fight anxiety and depression
DEEP-VR is a game made by game designer Owen Harris in 2013. He suffered from panic attacks and made the game to teach himself how to relax in a life-like situation. DEEP-VR is one of the games being tested in the Games for Emotional and Mental Health Lab (GEMH Lab) at Radboud University in Nijmegen.
The researchers try, among other things, to combat anxiety and depression with the help of games. "Many people still think that gaming is a lonely activity," says researcher Hanneke Scholten from the GEMH Lab. "But for most young people it is a supplement to their offline social life. As soon as therapists understand that, their perspective changes. When they see what we do, they are usually quickly convinced." At the GEMH Lab, they test and develop games based on proven principles from psychology.
Mimic fearful situation
A well-known principle from psychology is, for example, exposure . In a therapy against anxiety you expose yourself step by step to what you are afraid of. The same happens in DEEP-VR . "It is difficult to practice breathing calmly in a non-anxious situation," explains researcher Anouk Tuijnman. "So how do you teach yourself to keep breathing calmly when you are in a panic? With virtual reality you can simulate such situations well."
Control over your fears
Another psychological principle is that people must first believe that they can change before they can. "In our games, the message is that you will not be stuck with your depression or anxiety forever," says orthopedagogics professor Isabela Granic, who is in charge of the lab. "By practicing, you can better control your thoughts."
For example, there is a game for frightened children, in which the monsters, the environment and the games adapt to the feelings of the player. As a result, children learn to gain control of their fears. Because many young people are already playing games, it is a small step for them to use games as a tool. Moreover, games do not have such a stigma as therapy.
The calmer, the better you play
The games are not meant to replace therapy, they are a tool. Take MindLight , a game for anxious children from eight to twelve years old. Instead of boring exercises they do this game for a longer period of time. MindLight is made so that children learn to divert their attention from anxious thoughts.
They wear a so-called 'neurofeedback headset'. It looks like a headset with a microphone on the forehead. Only that is not a microphone, but an instrument that measures brain activity. The players can control their mindlight with their brain activity. The calmer the player is, the brighter the light becomes and the less scary his environment is.
Dealing with rejection
Games can also help to analyze what is bothering someone. Now therapists often ask new clients to complete a questionnaire about their symptoms. The disadvantage of this is that patients often give socially desirable answers. Anouk Tuijnman: "In a game you immediately see how they really deal with situations."
This is how it works: you come for an introductory meeting with a therapist. While you are sitting in the waiting room, you can already play a game. In this case it is the multiplayer game Scroll-Quest , intended for young people from the age of fifteen. Together with three other players, you fight monsters in a spaceship. What you don't know is that the other players have been instructed to ignore your questions and call for help.
ScrollQuest is made to measure how sensitive people are to rejection. Because the therapist watches while you play, he can see how you react to the rejection by your fellow players. This is important because research has shown that people who are sensitive to anxiety and depression respond differently to rejections. They are less flexible, involve rejection in themselves and often respond more angry or sad than other people.
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