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Depression and the Video Game
by Alice Rendell on 07/06/12 07:41:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


If you stop your average stranger in the street and ask them to describe a typical video game player, the answer is likely to include some unfortunate associations. The word ‘lonely’ would probably come up a lot and the phrases “doesn’t get out much” and “not very social” are likely to make an appearance or two.

Unfortunate though it is I am not necessarily here to dispute this fact. Of course we all know the dangers of stereotyping groups of people and I am not for one minute saying all gamers are awkward social nobodies. In fact nowadays with the rise of social and mobile games, the gaming arm has been extended to more and more unlikely types of players, and the gaming community in large is as diverse as it ever has been.

However, I must wonder as to where these types of generalizations come from. Are gamers really a sad lonely bunch? Or are we looking at this the wrong way. Is it that games provide sad and lonely people with something that the “real” world cannot?

According to Science Daily in 2011 depression affected more than 121 million people worldwide. Although the condition itself varies widely from person to person, there are of course some common factors.

Isolation and loneliness are key and usually progresses into a feeling of social disconnection from the world. Self loathing, as well as a numbing sense of underachievement is also typical, and when you team that with exhaustion and a complete lack of motivation it makes for a sorry state of being.

As a lifelong sufferer of depression myself, I can safely vouch for the fact that my most hardcore gaming phases of round the clock, routine gaming was intrinsically linked with these same types of feelings. On a good day I would perhaps only be affected by one or two of these symptoms. On a bad day I would be hit with the full force of all of them.

Games have helped and do help me through this and there was a game to counter every one of the symptoms I have described. At these moments I am the stereotypical gamer who needs to play games, not for escapism, but for healing and I am certain I am not, the only one. But what exactly is it that games do that help people who are feeling these types of negative emotions?

Anti-social, social gaming

Firstly, the problem of social isolation and loneliness. Being depressed does not necessarily mean you want to disconnect yourself from the world, it is more the fact that socialising is difficult when you are in a constant state of inward scrutiny. Why would someone else want to spend time with you when you don’t even want to spend time with yourself?

What a Massive Multiplayer Online game such as a World of Warcraft can offer is social situations on your terms. The social aspect of WOW is not demanding or even completely necessary to play and enjoy the game, but it is there to pick up and put down when you feel the need. This gives you back your control which, when suffering from depression, is something you often feel like you have lost.

This is important in making people with depression feel like they are still connected to the world, even if they are not currently participating in it in full force. MMOs and social games allow people who suffer from depression to dip their toes in the social pool without having to dive in head first, which is an incredibly necessary thing for keeping the really devastating feelings of loneliness at bay.

These kinds of online games provide sufferers of depression with accessible and manageable social interactions at a time when the alternative could be complete social isolation, and gradually help them to re-establish their social position in the world.

You got an underachievement

Feeling like you are an underachiever is something which I am sure affects most of us at one point or another, but when you suffer from depression this feeling doesn’t just affect you, it grabs and shakes you until the feeling is embedded in your every thought. Games however are all about achieving goals which are not only noticed, but comparably rewarded. If we take a social game like City Ville for example the main goal is to build a large, thriving city.

This is a ridiculously huge task in the real world and even on a gaming level it is no small feat, but what the game does is break down the bigger, overwhelming goal with small bitesize tasks. Some of the first missions of the game involve placing some small decorations on your city, or laying down a road going from one house to another.

These types of mini-tasks are not just accessible but extremely achievable with little or no exertion and before you know it you are achieving things just at a moment when you thought you couldn’t achieve anything. The tasks themselves are always greatly rewarded and never go unnoticed, which cannot but help induce a positive thought process which leads you to think “Well if I can achieve this, then maybe I can achieve other things as well”.

This is a gratifying experience to not only to be able to accomplish something, but also to believe that your hard work is appreciated. How often can we say in life that ALL our efforts at work or home are acknowledged completely by our colleagues, friends and families? But in a game, everything you do is acknowledged with some form of feedback or admiration.

The attractiveness of this for someone with depression is clear. At a time when it is hard to conjure the energy to achieve even the most mundane of tasks, to be able to experience completion and progression is more than a comfort, it is reinforcement of character, which reminds the individual that they really can achieve things, which hopefully translates into their real world activities.

Why me?

It has become almost a joke  to see how many games dedicate their story to that of saving the world or of being the special “chosen one” destined to become a great soldier/wizard/hero/plumber. I don’t believe this is necessarily due to a lack of creative thinking in game development but more to the power behind the feeling attributed with the scenario.

Everybody wants to feel special, but games make this a reality. To be entrusted with such an important task as saving the world, must mean you are important. Ok, it’s not real, but does that matter? When you are playing you are encouraged to believe it, the constance in which a player is told “You are my only hope” or “You are the chosen one, the only one to save us” is done with such regularity that after a while you can’t help but believe it. The fact that you then go on to accomplish this special and difficult task only reinforces the feeling.

It doesn’t matter that this is virtual importance, it evokes the feeling long enough for it to have an impact and if somone who is depressed starts to feel like they are important, even artificially, it will chase away enough of the inward negativity to insert a bit of hope. You can save the world, then you can become a part of it.

Depression isn’t a widely understood disease, not by doctors, not even by the people who are suffering from it. It is also a painful reality that the condition cannot be cured. What games can help us to do is to provide some insight into understanding better this disease. By knowing what games can provide for depression sufferers at a time in their life when they need something the outside world isn’t giving them, we can better understand the condition itself.

Games have been able to do this completely naturally and they are obviously providing something that was lacking for many people. But imagine if we went further with this and provided gaming experiences which not only help counter symptoms of depression, but actually gave depression sufferers the exact skills needed to rehabilitate themselves back into the world in way that helps them to beat the problem.

Games can subconsciously help provide players with transferable skills that can be applied to real world situations, such as how to overcome large obstacles one step at a time, or how to appreciate your achievements.

It is time for us to stop believing that games cause depression, or gamers are sad and lonely people, but instead believe that games are a unique provider of support and stability to many people in difficult emotional situations and can even help improve lives.

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Roger Tober
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Good points. I think I'm such a story oriented game player because I want to get into someone else's problems for a while and see how they deal with them. A lot of us use books or movies in exactly the same way and society doesn't peg people who do it as losers who never get out, or maybe it does, but to a lesser degree. A real problem with our society is it expects everyone to be extroverts and that's just not true for a huge percent of the population, so they put unnecessary pressure on people to act like something they are not. I suffered depression once a long time ago and I think it mainly came from a feeling of being trapped. I moved, put a little more distance from a lot of the people I knew, and got rid of my depression. I still realize that any kind of feeling sorry for myself thoughts can lead me back into it so I avoid them like the plague. There's nothing wrong with being alone and some of the most creative and inventive people in the world are alone for large portions of their time.

Tomas Majernik
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Nice article. I would love to see some kind of study on this - I belive games can help people in many ways. :)

Chris Hellerberg
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Excellent article!

Suffering from bipolar disorder myself I can confirm every single point made as I've been through all of that myself. The often suggested 'get out of the house' when you're depressed can actually make things worse. I'm not the kind of person who trusts others easily, and in a vulnerable state like depression being around other people leads me to completely withdraw myself, only talk when directly adressed, block everything out in the fear of criticism, and most importantly *just wish I was home*.

On the other hand playing an MMO from the safety of my home, where I can talk to people when I feel like it or ignore them when I don't, and achieving something in game a lot of people have not can help me just not think about it sometimes. It also helps tremendously that my character looks like she's smiling so I feel like "Hey, she's like part of myself and she's smiling so maybe I should smile, too." So she's like a constant reminder for me to look at things from an optimistic perspective. Doesn't mean it works all the time, of course.

And then there are games like Final Fantasy or The Last Story which can really immersive you in their beautiful and silly worlds and help you forget about your own for a while, and oh, there are chocobos! Action games like Halo or Ninja Gaiden are also a great help. Imagining you're a badass super soldier or ninja can really increase your self esteem, even if only by a little - that's already much more than most things do when you're depressed.

David Klingler
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I've been dealing with severe complicated depression for years now, and was glad to see this featured. I can agree by experience with many of the things you mentioned. Unfortunately, I can say that one thing games haven't been able to do very well for me in the past couple of years is simply getting me to play them. That might sound strange (because it is), but my mental illness has caused me a lot of loss of interest in things, which has over time also included playing games. I often have to give myself a good reason to play instead of just "wanting to play". These reasons can be based on competitiveness, for example. I have yet to get back to when I almost always wanted to get to a game just to play it. I still play games and am also a developer, but depression has presented me with obstacles every day.

Nick Harris
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Creating a video game is also a good strategy for avoiding depression. I've kept myself busy doing extensive research into the appropriate design of "multimedia content creation tools" that should significantly boost my productivity so that I can eventually produce a reasonably sophisticated game of my own utilising 3D graphics. It doesn't matter that this has taken twenty years as I have no boss, deadline, or breadline forcing me to rush and, ultimately, compromise my vision - making something that I know I won't be happy with. It is a hobby, much the same as those people who make "mods" and "total conversions" of other games, only I endeavour to originate my own engine that works according to conventions that suit my personal taste.

I'd probably already be finished if I'd used something like Unity, but I wouldn't be playing the game I set out to make, I would be playing an approximation of the game Unity would allow me to make. Besides, learning how to make my own tools (which includes a new programming language), has been as much fun as the 10,000+ games of Halo 3 that I have enjoyed participating in over the last few years. Indeed, it is debatable whether playing games is more fun than making them. After all, they both involve solving puzzles, pattern recognition, imaginative visualisation, memorisation, even prioritisation of potential threats.

Thanks for the supportive article.

Simon Fraser
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I think this gives some interesting perspective on depression and gaming. Your explanation of depression's symptoms clarified it a lot for me, and of course it's something I have experience with, I think everyone does at some point. I'd like to see someone take this idea further and study how game mechanics can really help depressed people.

Jim Arnold
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Great article! It makes me wonder if video games could ever be used by someone in the field of psychology as a tool in their practice. If video games are helping people deal with their depression and social anxieties in their own homes, why can't it be used in coordination with advice from a psychologist, for example, to more effectively deal with those issues? I like the thought of "If I can achieve this, then maybe I can achieve other things as well," you mentioned, but I feel like there is a disconnect between that feeling in the game and that feeling in real life. Since "real" life doesn't always reward as diligently as video games do, I could see someone getting addicted to games rather than trying to tackle tasks in the "real" world. With a little encouragement and guidance from a professional, though, I think that disconnect could easily be bridged to make video games a more effective tool in fighting depression and anti-social behavior.

John Flush
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Don't get me wrong, I appreciated the article, but I want to comment on two of the noted points:

"Anti-social, social gaming" - today's games focus much more on the online interactions than the local, in person, interactions. I think it was one of the reasons the Wii did so well early on. It evened the playing field and gave people a reason to get together and play. But with so many pushes to the online realm many people have found they aren't good at games. They lag behind the online masses dramatically - from not having the perfect build to not knowing all the acronyms for their particular game. Being such connected probably makes more people feel worse about their gaming than better. Of course subjective, but one of the reasons I refuse to play online.

"You got an underachievement"

I use to feel like I played games a lot and found everything there was to find. Then game this generations achievement system. No longer can I feel like I finished a game when there are 4-5 different achievements I haven't got yet (most of them online requirements). Then achievements rank borderline crazy like Rock Bands, play every song in one sitting without pausing, or other feats that are just ridiculous and require a lot of playing to accomplish. Never in gaming history have I felt so 'bad' at video games. I know I play them more than 99% of the people I know and can accomplish more than them in every game I play, but instead I'm reminded of what I can't achieve every time I look at the details of the game on my list.

Someone really suffering from depression should probably find something more uplifting than video games, and the systems they breed, these days.

Henrique Ribas
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Thank You Alice. From a person that suffers from depression for a long time..., your article means alot to me.