Health News: Can Video Games be Used to Help People with Mental Health Issues?

Video Games for Mental Health has previously featured articles about how the combination of the Xbox One and its accessory, the Kinect, can monitor the heart rate of a user. While it may seem frivolous for Microsoft to add this ability to its video game console, it may be a forward-thinking inclusion for the product. With the push to have doctors and hospitals transition to electronic health records, having a device in the home that can help monitor heart rate - and possibly upload that information for use by a primary care physician - might facilitate a deeper understanding of a patients' needs. It can also help people become more involved with their health, as information about them can be collected while they play or exercise, using some of the fitness games that work in conjunction with the Kinect.

While this can help with monitoring the physical ailments and health of an individual, what about those who suffer from mental health concerns? Well, there are a few high-tech innovations that focus on the health of people afflicted with illnesses such as anxiety and depression.

The most dangerous game

Mental health advocates may insist that what their patients deal with should not be treated like a game. Kara Stone might disagree with them. She has created a video game, MedicationMeditation, which has activities that mimic some of the exercises that people can use at home to help them deal with a mental illness. It is not intended to take the place of psychiatrists, psychologists or medication, but it is intended "to be more about [the] personal experiences of [the] people doing these activities."

There are only five activities that people can take part in currently. These include "Breathe," "Take," "Affirm," "Think," and "Talk." Each of these activities asks users to, "[do] some things that some people with mental illness have to do on a regular basis," according to Stone. Even though there are commercials advertising medications for mental illness, there is still a stigma attached to some of these diseases. Recently, current NFL quarterback Josh Freeman was revealed to be taking Adderall for his attention deficit disorder. Situations like these can make people dealing with a mental disorder wish to keep it secret and suffer alone. MedicationMeditation may help them by having a companion that understands their plight, even if it is an electronic one.

Something for the kids

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is a method of counseling adults who have mental illnesses. Therapists who use this technique hope to make their patients aware of the Negative Automatic Thoughts (NATs) and attitudes that may crop up during stressful or difficult situations, and can help educate them on different ways to respond during these moments. The Mayo Clinic points out many different reasons CBT may be used:

  • Manage symptoms of mental illness
  • Treat a mental illness when medications aren't a good option
  • Identify ways to manage emotions
  • Cope with grief
  • Overcome emotional trauma

Because CBT requires the patient be able to reflect upon their thinking, as well as facing a lot of their fears and anxieties, it is not a preferred method for therapists working with children. Three doctors, Gary O'Reilly, David Coyle and Nicola McGlade, are trying to develop a computer game that can use some of the techniques involved in CBT to help counsel children. In order to do this, O'Reilly, Coyle and McGlade built a metaphor into the game, turning the NATs into gNATs, the little flies that buzz around damp soil. The children playing the game control a character tasked with helping an explorer named David gNATenborough (patterned after naturalist and BBC broadcaster David Attenborough) control the gNAT infestation on an island.

Children play the game under the watchful and supportive eye of their therapist over six appointments. As characters in the game ask the patients questions and give them tasks to complete, the therapist can help the children answer the questions, complete the tasks, and understand how to apply the CBT methods they learn to deal with their particular mental illness.

So far more than 700 mental health professionals from the U.K., U.S. and Ireland have been trained in how to use the game. O'Reilly, Coyle and McGlade offer the training for free, and are currently conducting testing to see how successful this form of CBT can be for children.

Step by step

Neither of these new games is a panacea for mental health, and should not be viewed as such. They can, however, go a long way toward helping us destigmatize these diseases and give people who suffer from them different outlets for emotional support. Finding a cure may not be possible for many of these mental illnesses, but helping individuals learn to cope and live with them may lessen the stress, or the loneliness, that many feel.


Cognitive behavioral therapy, Mayo Clinic, February 21, 2013,

CBT Computer Game, Dr Gary O' Reilly, Dr David Coyle, and Dr Nicola McGlade, Pesky Gnats,

"MedicationMeditation transforms mental illness into mini-games," Zack Kotzer, Kill Screen, October 22, 2013,

"This video game helps kids deal with mental health issues," Anya Kamenetz, Fast Company, August 6, 2013,