We all know that games can be huge fun. They can distract us from problems like depression, anxiety, illness, or pain. They can also help us build skills and teach us things. And, they can be a great way to connect. So, can gaming improve mental health?
There was a Dutch historian in 1938, called Johan Huizinga, who wrote a book about play: 2Homo Ludens.” Of course, this was not about digital gaming, but about how playing is one of the primary elements in human nature that helps form who we are at a young age. We don’t learn to ride a bike from reading a book, we get on it and practice.
Serious gaming takes advantage of our human instincts – first by enticing the player to participate and engage and then by providing the opportunity to interact in an activity or community. Gamification, employing game mechanics and game design in non-game scenarios, is another way play in technology is used in situations such as business learning or disease management. And so a game can become a game with a purpose, a serious game.
At Digging Deep, we see so much potential for serious games to help teens work through the emotional challenges that invariably hit them when facing a significant health issue, whether this is due to physical or mental health. The opportunity to embrace game mechanics to make situations that are uncomfortable and tough to talk about, more palatable—to be worked through in a fun and engaging way—is exciting to us. That is why we made Shadow’s Edge.
Younger generations use their technologies as a force of habit. By the age of 21, the average young American has spent over ten thousand hours playing on the computer, mobile, and video games (McGonical, 2011). They are not only playing games for fun, they are using gaming technology in many ways. Technology and gaming is an undeniable presence in their everyday life, from entertainment to social networks, to dating games, mapping or e-learning. There is hardly a process in our current way of life that has no technology intervention.
In healthcare, traditional applications have focused on either treatment for patients—keeping track of medication, organizing schedules and measuring and monitoring health conditions—or on training medical personnel and transmitting information directly to patients. Only recently have there been a number of organizations researching and developing games and apps to help patients manage diseases, track selfcare activities, and motivate change.
Fitbits, jogging apps, and applications to manage or influence behavior in healthy lifestyles are all around us, aiming to make (for example) jogging fun by adding a storyline, challenges, and offering rewards. Rewards range from badges to progress bars to in-app currencies. That is Gamification.
While the application of gaming for health monitoring and motivational change is becoming more common, health institutions are only starting to think about the use of serious or applied games for supporting the mental strength and resilience necessary when dealing with physical health challenges and trauma, especially for teens.
That is why Digging Deep created a mobile game to let players take the driver’s seat of their own emotional health: Shadow’s Edge empowers teens to work through everything from daily disappointments to major life traumas. This is answers the question can gaming improve mental health?