Depression and Video Game Play

This last day of 2011 closes out a very busy year for me. I have three books which will be coming out in 2012 that I spent the year working on. Two are on video games and one on dreams. The first to appear is “Play Reality” which I wrote with my gamer son (www.playreality.ca). It is an overview of gaming effects research from the perspective of a gamer. Then in late February a book I co-wrote a very long time ago will be reissued as an e-book, “Control Your Dreams”. Later in 2012 my third book, also on gaming, will appear. It is an edited book entitled “Video Game Play and Consciousness”. All three are completed and going through the publishing process. As each becomes available I’ll announce it here on my blog.

This time I wanted to feature some discussion board posts from two of my students here at MacEwan. I co-teach a course on video games with Brian Brookwell of the Computer Science Department in a degree they offer on video game design. As part of the course requirement students talk about their experience with video game play. This last term two students spoke about their experience with suffering with serious depression and how gaming helped them recover. The first is a case of a young man (Student A) who details how World of Warcraft was instrumental in his recovery. This is followed by another case of depression and gaming by a young woman (Student B). In the second case she details the specifics of the game experience which she felt pulled her through. Her case echoes the young man’s but she goes further and considers how that very activity of recovery became addiction and how she then dealt with the other side of this two sided coin. These are thoughtful and intelligent young people who offer from their own lives these experiences. One student requested to remain anonymous, the other student did not. However, I thought it best to keep both students anonymous. If however, you the reader would like to contact one of these students I can forward your email. I offer these cases in the spirit of hopefully helping others who may be suffering depression as a potential way to move on.

Student A:

During my grade 11 year … I found myself spiraling out of control, starting with my own mother’s diagnosis of being depressed, mixed with the unrelenting course load I found myself slipping deep down into the dark mental trap known as depression. It consumed me for more than 9 months leaving me with absolutely no will to do anything, lying on a couch watching TV. Then one day I was coaxed out of the house by my dad to go to a computer shop to help him get some software and I saw WoW on the shelf, I asked my dad if we could buy a copy and he agreed as it was the first thing I was interested in months. I took it home and started playing, at first alone avoiding other players but soon I found myself interacting with people using my avatar as a mask to protect my fragile psyche. Not long after I found myself leading the warlocks through Molten core and eventually I tried my hand at guild leadership. Through a combination of leading my friends, master my characters and the aid provided by my doctor I managed a full recovery. I think that without an outlet for my mind it’s actually quite possible I would have given up entirely and succumbed to my depression. However as I am writing this today that is not the case and I feel that part of my survival is actually owed to WoW an MMORPG. I feel that my personal experience is honestly a great example of how MMO’s can help people recover. Even though mine wasn’t prescribed it did help me and I think it has real potential to help people struggling with mental illness.

Student B:

            Video games and mental health – do they help or hinder? If a clear answer is what you’re looking for, stop reading now. In class we discussed several studies with seemingly contradictory conclusions. On the one hand, video games have been seen to ease depression and reduce anxiety. On the other – excessive gaming was associated with lower indicators of mental health, addiction and even suicide. So what’s actually going on here? What is the interrelation between video games and depression?

                I feel like I’m in a unique position to reflect on the nature of video game play, depression and addiction, because I’ve had relevant experiences on both sides. Several years ago, I was hit, like a brick, with a major depressive episode. It’s hard to point to what initially triggered the switch that sucked all the color out of my world. I like to joke that it was because I was taking an arts degree, but in retrospect I mostly attribute it to a perfect storm of hereditary/environmental/and mental circumstances. What’s important isn’t how I became depressed – rather it’s what helped me move forward. The initial activity that helped me get a foothold back into my life was gaming. It started with my brother coaxing me to play World of Warcraft with him.

Looking back it’s easy to see why a game world was the perfect stepping-stone for me to get back to the real world. When you’re clinically depressed one thing you quickly get tired of hearing from doctors is “get outside, go meet people, go participate in activities”. For one thing, It’s incredibly difficult to interact with the real world when mentally you feel like you’ve been ground into a million little pieces. Secondly – people don’t exactly line up to be your friend when you look like you could burst into tears at any moment. The cycle of isolation and depression is difficult to break. Stepping into a game world allowed me to start socializing from behind the mask of my avatar. In game, no one could tell I was depressed. If I started crying, no one in game could see me. On days when I could barely drag myself out of bed, let alone make myself look acceptable enough to step out in public I could still log on and interact with other people without any stigma. As I played, I slowly gained in-game friends (some of which have become real life friends) and just as importantly I started to regain the confidence and self-worth that depression and stolen from me. As I continued to recover, gaming further helped me by giving me a sense of identity (as a ‘gamer’) that could be carried into the real world. 

Because of my experience of video games and depression I am eager to see further research explore the use of social games as a means of recovery for individuals suffering from severe depressive disorders. As a therapy it has obvious benefits. First – it offers a means of increasing a social connection. Second – it get’s the individual suffering from depression to focus on a positive external environment rather than their negative internal environment. Third – they often provide a structured goals and purpose (it a time in an individual’s life when they may have little of either). And finally as a medium for social interaction video games offer a degree of environmental control that is unparalleled by any other conceivable social situation. It what other social situation besides video games can log off if you feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable with very little questions asked?

Having talked about what I think the benefits are when it comes to video games and mental health, I think my argument must be tempered with a discussion of the potential negatives. Anyone who tells you without a doubt that video games are all sunshine and butterflies (or the opposite that they are the downfall of today’s youth etc.) shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’ve said a lot of great things about video games so far, so I think it’s only fair to say that video games have the potential to be a very destructive force in a person’s life. One of the ugliest sides to gaming comes in the form of addiction.

In my last discussion post I talked a lot about the overuse of operant conditioning in video games. Video game companies have poured a lot of money into understanding and perfecting the perfect reward schedule to keep players hooked.  I think when it comes to video games the point of addiction is when the player no longer in control of their behavior. To me this point happened last summer during a particularly unstructured period of my vacation. The game was Halo III, a first person multiplayer shooter with relatively short matches. The problem with addictions is that they sneak up on you. Gradually, my play went from an hour a day, to several hours a day – and suddenly I was playing from dawn till dusk and my life was starting to feel… well not entirely of my own design. I would go to bed upset at how little I’d accomplished during the day, and swear to myself that I wouldn’t play anymore the next day – but come morning, echoing the words of countless addicts before me I would tell myself “just one more game” and they cycle would begin all over again. I felt like my video game use was out of control – and I was beginning to feel a sense of hopeless when it came to my behavior. Whereas earlier in my life video games had helped me overcome depression episode – here they seemed to be taking me down a path towards one. My savior in this situation was a return to structure, the start of my summer job, and throwing out (yes I actually chucked in in the trash) Halo III. I was lucky enough to resume life relatively unscathed but it gave me a lot of perspective as to how someone in a similar situation could have easily become depressed. In essence it was essentially the opposite of the experience I described before – isolation from my social circle (I was so embarrassed by my excessive game play that I hid my online status so my friends wouldn’t see my playing), and a decrease in confidence in myself.

So having had these two contradictory experiences with video games, where does that leave me? To be honest, more confused than anything.  How do we as video game players monitor and regulate something that can be simultaneously so positive and so negative? Is it like we discussed in class, just a matter of constant assessment and vigilance? Are we even capable of such a judgment from our limited views we have of ourselves? One thing I do take away from these two experiences and from this course is that mentally video games are much more powerful than anyone gives them credit for. It seems like by chance we have hit upon some formula with our media that is particularly potent when it comes to manipulating and forming new neural loops, modifying reward circuits and generally changing our patterns of behavior. The term ‘playing with fire’ seems to apply here. Hopefully we’ll grow to better understand the effects of video games and mental health before we get burned.

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