Can gaming help fix depression? We tried 5 games to find out

It's got to be worth a try

Every time you hear something about videogames on the news, it seems to be bad: they make us violent, antisocial, sedentary, obese weirdos. But I’m not convinced that’s true. Not least because I live with a gamer and I’m pretty sure he’s never tried to kill me.

My totally unscientific theory that they’re not all bad gained some actual clout recently, when Jane McGonigal’s book and game suggested that far from turning us all into murderous freaks, videogames might actually be good for you. We wrote about it recently on Gadgette, and I wondered if maybe that meant games could help me.

I’ve spent the past few months recovering from a particularly nasty bout of depression, and while I’m supposedly doing everything right, I’m not magically fixed. I still tend to see every minor setback as a catastrophe. I’m still certain that any tiny failure means I’m a useless human. Some days I’m still in the mindset where smashing the yolk of my fried eggs means that rather than having breakfast, I go back to bed.

Since our recent article on wearable tech for depression showed it didn’t help much, I decided to give five games a shot and see if they were any better.

5. Lego Harry Potter (PS3)

Image © Lego

I started out simple. I like Lego. I like Harry Potter. It was bound to work out brilliantly.

Except it didn’t. Because it turns out I have rubbish hand-eye coordination, and fall off everything. All the time. While videogame me came back to life instantly, real-world me got increasingly frustrated and angry that I was so utterly useless. I may even have blamed the controller and repeatedly called Hermione a “little witchy bastard”.

But I tried to be more like the characters, and just keep jumping until I finally landed. It turns out it doesn’t matter that I failed before, because I just needed to land it once. And then I started collecting trophies, unlocking characters, and slowly feeling a bit better about myself. I made it in the end, and that was all that really counted.

4. Mario Kart (Wii)

Image © Nintendo

Time for a confession: I’ve played Mario Kart before. It was at a party years ago, and I was drunk and rubbish. I’ve not had a drink for four years now, so I was bound to be brilliant this time.

I wasn’t. I fell off most things, and drove into everything else. I spent my entire time in last position, calling Bowser a “stupid dinosaur bastard.”

But the real problem was that I felt like a sad old loser playing alone. All my friends are functional adults who aren’t free at 3pm on a Tuesday. Nothing about the game made me feel better, until it occurred to me that it might be a sneaky way of seeing people without too much pressure.

I’m not always great with the talking, but I am good with making people laugh by driving off the track for the third time in 20 seconds. So maybe the trick with this one is that it’s good to play with other people, but if you play it on your own you might just end up singing “All By Myself” as you crash into a wall.

3. Final Fantasy VII (Steam)

image via Flickr © CLF

Ever since I’ve known him, my husband has banged on about how Final Fantasy VII is the best game in a magnificent series. I was mostly enthusiastic about it because I couldn’t fall off things.

I could, however, still get stuck within the first ten minutes.

Logical thinking isn’t my strong point when I’m not well; my brain refuses to think in anything resembling a linear way and instead wanders off into various nightmare scenarios. So working out what I was meant to do was a challenge, and a pretty frustrating one. But once I managed it, I felt like I’d at least achieved something, even if it had taken me 20 minutes to do it.

Not falling off everything along the way definitely helped.

2. Tomb Raider (PS3)

image via Flickr © Andy Cull

I’ve heard a lot about Tomb Raider, mainly from the Angelina Jolie films and that scene in Spaced where Tim drowns Lara Croft. I expected it to be a terrible plan, all suspense and panic and other anxiety-inducing monstrosities. But it turned out that the only thing that freaked me out was the controller buzzing in my hand.

Because Tomb Raider pretty much told me what to do. It told me how to jump, and how to set fire to things, and what I was meant to do next. It left just enough of a puzzle for me to feel like I’d achieved something when I worked out that I needed to jump on this thing to make it put stuff in that thing so that something else would catch fire and then I could get out. And I was actually meant to fall down some of the things I fell down.

For the first time, I could really see how a gaming mentality could help me in my everyday life.

And then I got crushed by a rock.

1. WWE15 (PS4)

Image via Game UK

Last up, I agreed with my husband that I’d play one of his beloved wrestling games with him. I only lasted about five minutes, because I’ve never encountered a more bewildering thing in my life.

I tried doing what he told me to do, and that didn’t work. I tried mashing buttons, and that didn’t work. I just seemed to end up on the floor a lot with no idea of how I got there, wishing that the techniques I’d employed on Street Fighter 2 in 1993 were still valid.

In the end I just gave up and had a cup of tea, because that seemed much more likely to aid my recovery that being slammed to the floor for a twelfth time would.

So, is my brain fixed?

No, not yet. But I can definitely see how playing the right computer game and making a serious effort to apply it to my everyday life might help.

For years now, my life motto has been “it could be worse, I could have rabies.” But it might be time to replace that, perhaps with “it could be worse, I could be Lara Croft.” If she can survive her shipwrecked nightmare of an island with only my questionable skills to get her out, then I can survive the traumas of my pretty un-dramatic life.

I just need to think about it like a Tomb Raider puzzle; look around, see what’s what, make a plan, and go for it. And if that doesn’t work, just go back and try again.

And at least I don’t fall off things as much in real life.


Main Image © iStock/stocknroll