Can Video Games Cure Depression?

by Pamela J. Hobart

Have you been taught that video games won't do anything but rot your brain and make you violent? Think again, because new research (via shows that video games might cure depression. Researchers working in a team across several universities (including Yale) used a treatment called "neuroplasticity-based computerized cognitive remediation-geriatric depression" (nCCR-GD) on a group of geriatric (that is, old) patients suffering from depression. nCCR-GD is a fancy way of saying "video games designed to engage executive functions," like planning, organizing, and strategizing.

As is forthcoming in Nature Communications, the researchers found that the video games worked as well as an antidepressant drug to alleviate depression symptoms, but more quickly – in about one month, instead of three. Although the study had only 11 participants, it suggests new avenues for researching depression treatments (maybe one day, computerized therapy will revolutionize mental health care, improving access and slashing costs for all).

This finding is actually pretty interesting not just because it's surprising, but because another form of screen-based entertainment, watching television, is actually correlated with depression in women. Video games won't help everyone's depression, though: only depression related to decline in executive function of the brain (old people are more likely to have this kind of depression than young people, because of the cognitive declines associated with aging). Also, not any old video game will work, either — it has to be sufficiently complex to encourage the player to connect past game events with possible future events in a complex manner (merely watching television can't engage the watcher in this way, so that may be why it doesn't help depression).

Between this work on video games and recent interest in using botox injections to alleviate depression, it's clear that depression has become a primary cause of mental health concern for Americans — and that we're hungering for treatment options. But, despite the catchy headlines and many drugs, depressive episodes remain much more difficult to ease than we'd hope. While we wait for miracle potions or surgeries, there's not much to do but comfort ourselves with the interesting but, well, itself depressing idea that depression serves an important evolutionary purpose.