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Depression? There’s an App for That

Depression? There's an App for ThatJane McGonigal is a world-renowned game developer. She’s dedicated her career to the creation of intricate imaginary worlds and fiercely promotes the power of play. McGonigal encourages daily gaming. She believes that a quick dose of Angry Birds or hours spent plowing the virtual fields of FarmVille is not only relaxing but is actually beneficial to your health.

So beneficial, in fact, that gaming may add up to 10 years to your life.

In her groundbreaking TED Talk, McGonigal presents the research behind her theory.

Live Longer, Be Happier

Perhaps more interesting than her proposition to live longer is McGonigal’s empathic awareness that some people are uncertain about even living past today. Two years ago, McGonigal experienced persistent suicidal thoughts following a concussion.

As she explains it, her brain started telling her, “You want to die. You are never going to get better. The pain is never going to end.” To heal her brain, McGonigal had been banned from all outside stimulation. She couldn’t play traditional video games, use the computer, leave the house, or even drink caffeine. All of these activities triggered her symptoms.

Even in the depths of her depression, however, McGonigal was still armed with what she knew about research on gaming. Playing games promotes creativity, determination, and optimism. Games encourage people to connect with others, strengthen relationships, and ask for help. These life-giving facets of human existence were the very same characteristics that her injury and suicidal thoughts seemed to be draining. McGonigal decided to cope how she knew best: She designed a game. The game itself was a simple role-playing recovery game titled “Jane: The Concussion Slayer.”

Feeling “SuperBetter” through Gaming

Since its inception and life-saving result, McGonigal has adapted the original recovery game into “SuperBetter.” This free and simple game, which is also an app, focuses on strengthening resilience through simple tasks that increase physical, mental, emotional, and social health. The tasks are easy, fun, and can usually be done in a few minutes. Rather than countering productivity, McGonigal challenges, playing games actually improves our ability to work harder, be happier, and live longer.

Logic leads us to believe that complex and costly problems demand equally complicated solutions. There are fewer problems as complicated and devastating as suicide. As research has demonstrated countless times, human behavior sometimes evades even the greatest attempts at logic. What if it’s true? What if Angry Birds or games like it could have the same healing effect as powerful medication and hours of therapy?

Researchers at East Carolina believe their 2011 study found just that. Among participants who were depressed, individuals who played casual games like Bejeweled Blitz demonstrated an average 57 percent reduction in symptoms. Even more impressive, these improvements remained over time. Researchers concluded that the games “caused physiological and biochemical changes consistent with positive changes in mood and anxiety.”

East Carolina researchers didn’t compare their findings to studies that have found similar relief from depression as a result of board games, outdoor recreation, or time spent with friends. Online games, like Angry Birds, FarmVille, and others, are simply forms of play. In excess, they can be problematic but at the end of many long, busy days, they may be the only form of play some people enjoy. Play — and gaming — has significant, evidence-based healing powers.

As McGonigal concludes, “Reality is broken. We need to make it work more like a game to fix it.”

?What do you think?
Are prescriptions for time spent gaming in the future of treatment for depression? How does gaming impact your mood?

For More Information

The Science Behind McGonigal’s TED Talk

Russoniello, C.V., O’Brien, K., & Parks, J.M. (2009). The effectiveness of casual video games in improving mood and decreasing stress. Journal of CyberTherapy and Rehabilitation, 2(1), 53-66.

Depression? There’s an App for That

Kara Ayers, PhD

Dr. Kara Ayers is a writer, professor, and therapist with a PhD in clinical psychology. She’s also a proud person with a disability. Kara has Osteogenesis Imperfecta, a form of dwarfism that causes brittle bones. She’s a passionate advocate for consideration of disability as a culture and has enjoyed online networking with and about the disability community for more than a decade. Kara’s clinical focus is on children and families and she cites her 2-year-old daughter as her greatest teacher.

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APA Reference
Ayers, K. (2018). Depression? There’s an App for That. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Oct 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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