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Casual games trump meds for depression

Game dev sponsors pro-game study

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"Family friendly" casual games are not merely a mindless way to waste time, but are also an effective treatment against depression, according to a year-long study.

"The results of this randomized clinical study clearly demonstrate the intrinsic value of certain casual games in terms of significant, positive effects on depression and anxiety symptoms," reads a report (PowerPoint) snappily entitled "The Efficacy of Prescribed Casual Video Games in Reducing Clinical Depression and Anxiety", produced by East Carolina University's Psychophysiology Lab and Biofeedback Clinic.

"In my opinion," says the Clinic's director, Dr. Carmen Russoniello, "the findings support the possibility of using prescribed casual video games for treating depression and anxiety as an adjunct to, or perhaps even a replacement for, standard therapies including medication.”

The clinical study involved 59 subjects, "all meeting the criteria of clinical depression." Each subject was seated in front of a computer "in a room with minimal distractions (blank walls, no outside view, minimal noise)," where the control group surfed a National Institute of Mental Health web site for 30 minutes, and the test subjects played a casual game for the same period of time.

Not to nitpick the study's methodology, but The Reg suggests that browsing a website devoted to matters of mental health might not have been the most neutral of activities to assign to the control group.

Each participant – control subject or game player – was given a battery of "psychophysiology, biochemical and psychological" tests before, during, and after the test period. According to Russoniello and his team, the game players "experienced an average reduction in depression symptoms of 57 percent."

Russoniello also said that the game players' depression was alleviated not only in the short term – after 30 minutes of game play – but also up to a month after playing.

"Given that only 25 percent of people who suffer from depression are receiving treatment," Russoniello said, "it seems prudent to make these low cost, readily accessible casual games video games available to those who need them. They should be made available at health clinics, community centers, online 'medical sites' and given out by therapists as a means of intervention."

Not to impugn the objectivity of fine folks at East Carolina University, but it should be noted that the research upon which the report was based was underwritten by PopCap Games, the developer of the three games used in the study: Bejeweled 2, Peggle, and Bookworm Adventures.

This is not the first PopCap-sponsored study that touted the salubrious effects of casual gaming. In 2007, the company supported an online survey by the Information Solutions Group which concluded that "Among adult 'family gamers,' 92 per cent overall (and 95 per cent of grandparents in particular) said that they felt [casual] games provided an opportunity to 'bond with, or better relate to' their children or grandchildren."

It's also to be noted that therre have been a number of studies gauging the psychological effects of video gaming. One such study in 2009, for example, concluded that "pathological gamers (i.e., addicted to video games) were 2.77 times more likely to report being diagnosed with an attention deficit (ADD or ADHD) than youth who were not pathological gamers."

However, two of that study's authors also noted, quite reasonably, that: "At this point in time we don't know whether this effect is a direct cause of playing video games or whether it is a characteristic of folks who like to play a lot of video games."

Perhaps the next PopCap-funded study can focus on attention-deficit disorders. ®

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