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ivoh | January 17, 2018

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Researchers find video games like SuperBetter are helping to decrease anxiety, depression

Researchers find video games like SuperBetter are helping to decrease anxiety, depression






Researchers are now paying more attention to video games to learn how they can help people dealing with mental health issues.

SuperBetter — a video game created by Jane McGonigal — is the subject of a few different studies. As she explained in a TED talk, McGonigal designed the game after suffering from a concussion that left her feeling severely depressed.

McGonigal giving a TED talk about how games heal people.

McGonigal giving a TED talk about how games heal people.

To cope, she turned her experience into a game called Jane the Concussion Slayer, which she later re-titled SuperBetter. Making herself the hero of her own real-life-based video game helped her depression go away, boosted her resilience, and made her experience what doctors call “post-traumatic growth.” As others began using the game, she heard from them about how it was helping them, too.

In an article this week, The Wall Street Journal profiles McGonigal’s game and the effect it’s had on others who are struggling with injuries, illnesses, and depression. The story mentions Reva Wood, a 33-year-old woman who started playing SuperBetter after being diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder that led to anxiety and chronic pain. The game, she said, improved her outlook and overall well-being.

Her experience is in line with what researchers found when studying SuperBetter’s effects. The Journal reports:


SuperBetter has been shown to decrease depression in one trial. Researcher Ann Marie Roepke, a University of Pennsylvania psychology graduate student, recruited participants online to play the game. She tested them using the 0 to 60 depression scale from the Center for Epidemiologic Studies depression scale. Higher scores indicate more severe symptoms. A score above 16 suggests depression. After one month of playing the game, the depression score of the 31 players decreased by 11.3 points, compared with a control group that didn’t play the game and whose scores decreased by 4.3 points. (The study wasn’t funded by SuperBetter or Ms. McGonigal, Ms. Roepke notes.)

People with anxiety or depression often obsess over worst-case scenarios, says Ms. McGonigal, director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based research group. In SuperBetter, this negative habit is represented by a character named Madame Esmerelda—a psychic who looks into a crystal ball and sees only the negative. The player must defeat her by challenging her doomsday predictions. This helps people develop skills similar to those taught in cognitive-behavioral therapy, says Ms. McGonigal: “It can help you notice bad habits or negative thinking patterns that get in the way of you feeling better or stronger.”

McGonigal and Ohio State University professor Lise Worthen-Chaudhari will conduct a separate study on SuperBetter’s effects beginning next month.

As the article points out, video games aren’t a substitute for face-to-face psychotherapy. They are, however, an increasingly important part of some people’s recovery process.


Related stories: Yale video game project aims to help young people make better choices || New study to look at how video games increase mindfulness, empathy || Jane McGonigal explains how video games can aid the healing process