I’ve been saying for a while that “games for mental health” are the next big frontier in serious games, ever since I came across a study on using Tetris to treat PTSD. Well, there’s been some press (here, for example) about a new study that claims that casual games can treat symptoms of depression. I checked out the slides, but it’s hard to tell from slides alone just how rigorous the research process was. I can already see some flaws in this study – for example, I’m concerned that they allowed players to choose among three different casual games*, and I also wonder whether the researchers could accidentally have invoked the Hawthorne effect. It’s also not clear how they handled recruitment, which might lead to generalizability issues.
That said, I’m really looking forward to seeing the full study when it’s published. Even if this study has some possible problems, it points the way to the next study, which lets us ask better questions and get better answers. Jesper Juul hits it on the nose when he suggests that we need to investigate how casual games compare to other semi-structured activities, and what factors of game-play were actually effective. For example, game-play might have helped by giving subjects a manageable task, a quick hit of success and competence, or they might have helped subjects practice emotional self-regulation. I’d like to see what theories the researchers drew on, and why they chose the games they did. That might help narrow down possible mechanisms.
I’d also like to see this work tied to research on non-digital play therapies, including art therapy. There’s a bit of a tendency to treat digital games as creations ex nihilo. Let’s not forget that we know at least something about the efficacy of existing therapies, and make sure that’s a part of the conversation. For example, maybe we want to target game-based depression relief at people who might not otherwise seek help, or at people who show poor adherence to other treatments, or at people who can’t afford extended therapy. Maybe we want to do all three, but these groups react differently to different casual games. This issue just gives us more good questions to ask.
Hey, anyone want a research agenda?
* I mean, the researchers have the right instinct: freedom is terribly important in play. But now they’ve got three different experimental treatments without any rationale that they should be treated identically. Additionally, they didn’t offer the control group any choice about what to do. Maybe the whole thing ties back to that initial decision to take an active role in one’s own treatment, especially considering that the control group wasn’t asked to do anything between research sessions.