Exploring the Intersection of Gaming and Mental Health

During the pandemic I worked on a project called A Mindful State for Washington State Governor Jay Inslee studying the intersection of technology and wellbeing. For years I’ve been exploring the ways in which digital media and community can support positive mental health and personal growth. I was sure to by attend the prestigious SXSW panel “Can Video Games Treat Mental Health? The Power of Play” exploring whether video games could serve as viable tools for treating mental health issues.

With a diverse array of experts from the worlds of gaming, neuroscience, and clinical psychology, this panel delved into the profound “power of play” and its potential to revolutionize how we approach some of society’s most pressing healthcare challenges. Strap in, because we’re going full-tilt into the future of well-being.

The all-star lineup featured Ryan Douglas (Founder of DeepWell DTx), Vince Kadlubek (Founder of Meow Wolf), Ryan Hartsell (Emmy Award-Winning Immersive Experience Director), and Dr. Sam Browd (2021 Congress of Neurological Surgeons Innovator of the Year). This multidisciplinary mashup set the stage for an exploration into “the new world of ‘immersive medicine'” and how purposefully designed gaming experiences could hold the key to tackling major accessibility and healthcare challenges.

The Global Mental Health Crisis: A Call to Action

The sheer scale of the global mental health crisis cannot be overstated. One jarring statistic shared during the panel projected that by 2030, the World Health Organization expects mental health conditions to become the leading cause of morbidity and mortality worldwide. With a staggering 600 million people already grappling with these issues, the urgency to find innovative and accessible solutions has never been greater.

Video Games and Immersive Medicine: A New Pathway to Healing

It was against this sobering backdrop that the panel began examining video games and “immersive medicine” as potential pathways forward. As the panelists articulated, “This new realm of VR experiential entertainment…has the potential to really change the face of mental healthcare if we can come to terms with the core causes of psychological distress.” The core premise? Immersing individuals in carefully designed virtual worlds could induce physiological and psychological states remarkably conducive to healing.

The Power of Immersive Experiences

This idea was vividly illustrated through examples from the acclaimed arts and entertainment collective Meow Wolf. Their mind-bending, multisensory experiences are specifically engineered to transport visitors into “contexts of the unknown” where a childlike sense of exploration and discovery is reignited. As Ryan explained, “When you’re in a context of the unknown…exploration and discovery are possible. Otherwise, the brain just sort of zones out.”

Neuroscience, Technology, and Creativity: Converging for Mental Wellness

Remarkably, emerging research suggests these immersive experiences can induce brain states akin to mild psychedelic experiences – something long understood to hold profound therapeutic potential. By clever artistic and technological design, individuals can access expansive mindsets and disrupt engrained patterns without the need for pharmacological intervention.

At the crux of this approach lies the melding of cutting-edge technology, neuroscientific insights, and boundless human creativity – a convergence that pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Sam Browd hailed as “an amazing intersection…that presents great opportunity.” As he highlighted through examples from his pioneering work, we are only beginning to scratch the surface of how purposefully designed media can kindle neuroplasticity and facilitate healing.

The Unique Power of Play

Perhaps the most tantalizing prospect, however, centered on the unique power of play itself. Multiple panelists affirmed that when individuals are deeply engaged in video game experiences – popularly dismissed as mere entertainment – their brain activity mirrors that of someone undergoing a “mild to moderate psilocybin or LSD trip.” This seemingly counterintuitive connection hints at the profound psychological potency of truly immersive gameplay.

Serendipitous Outcomes and the Future of Mental Health Interventions

Providing a wide range of examples, the panelists continually emphasized how the “most wildly therapeutic” gaming experiences tend to emerge almost by accident rather than strict clinical design. Games like Animal Crossing, for instance, simply by facilitating open-ended play and creative expression, appeared to instill a general sense of wellbeing in players over time.

Of course, translating such serendipitous outcomes into scalable mental health interventions is far from straightforward. As the panel acknowledged, significant hurdles around accessibility, affordability, and integration with existing healthcare systems remain. Collaboration across sectors – gaming, clinical research, public health policy, and more – will be paramount.

Conclusion: Envisioning a New Paradigm in Mental Health Care

Yet for all the complexities ahead, I found myself profoundly inspired by the panel’s central revelation: The very same qualities that make gaming experiences so captivating and immersive may hold the key to catalyzing human flourishing on a societal scale. As one panelist summarized, “The overlap between what is immersive, what makes us feel better, and what engages us…that’s why we’ve seen some of these things have the impact they have.”

In an era when mental health disorders have become a ubiquitous yet often stigmatized struggle, the tantalizing prospect of “prescribed” video games could mark a pivotal paradigm shift. Whereas athletic play has long been championed for its physical benefits, might purposefully designed digital gameplay emerge as an equally vital outlet for psychological rejuvenation?

As the panel made clear, much rigorous research and cross-disciplinary collaboration lie ahead before such visions can be realized. But by fusing creativity, technological innovation, and insights into the neurological roots of human experience, an entirely new frontier of mental healthcare may be steadily taking shape. And at the vanguard of this movement are those daring enough to recognize video games – so often dismissed as mere entertainment – as potential gateways to individual and collective flourishing.

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