Research indicates videogames may be effective in treating depression

Two separate studies have found that videogames may be an effective treatment for depression.

The first, a joint study between the University of Washington and the University of California San Francisco, has found that videogames may be more effective at treating late life depression than traditional therapies.

Published in the journal ‘Depression and Anxiety,’ the study concludes that preliminary findings demonstrate “that this therapeutic video game targeting cognitive control deficits may be an efficacious LLD [late life depression] intervention.”

The game mentioned is a mobile, tablet-based treatment technology developed by Akili Interactive Labs called Project: EVOProject: EVO was not designed to treat depression, but instead, to increase a player’s focus and attention at a neurological level.

Project: EVO

The study focused on adults over the age of 60 who had been diagnosed with late life depression. According to the study, treatments that currently exist for depression do not work as well for older adults. Existing treatments are also utilised inconsistently.

Older adults with impaired cognitive control networks tend to demonstrate poor response to a majority of existing depression interventions.

Cognitive control interventions delivered using entertainment software have the potential to not only target the underlying cerebral dysfunction associated with depression, but to do so in a manner that is engaging and engenders adherence to treatment protocol.

The study gave 50% of participants access to Project: EVO and the other 50% were given in-person ‘problem solving therapy.’ Problem solving therapy is a cognitive-behavioural intervention which aims to help patients learn how to cope with stressful situations and take control of their lives.

Sufferers of LLD tend to lose the ability to focus or concentrate due to being overwhelmed by worry. These distractions cause the sufferer to lost interest in day to day life, experience insomnia, anorexia, fatigue and even suicidal thoughts.

The results of the study saw that the group who used Project: EVO had demonstrated cognitive benefits. The users reported improved attention, concentration and ability to function day-today compared to those who received behavioral therapy.

UW Medicine Researcher Patricia Areán


UW Medicine Researcher Patricia Areán said, “We found that moderately depressed people do better with apps like this because they address or treat correlates of depression.”

Areán also described how most of the participants had never used a tablet before, so videogames were a very foreign concept. In spite of this, testing compliance was greater than 100 percent.

The participants were required to play Project: EVO for 20-minutes at a time, five days a week. The study indicates many of the participants well exceeded the minimum requirements and played Project: EVO much more.



While EVO was not directly designed to treat depressive symptoms, we hypothesized that there may indeed be beneficial effects on these symptoms by improving cognitive issues with targeted treatment and so far the results are promising.

– Joaquin A. Anguera. University of California, San Francisco

The participants using Project: EVO also attended weekly sessions with a a doctor. This was done as a control due to the participants in the PST group having face-to-face meetings. Contact with other people of this type and social interactions is known to have a positive effect, thus those using the app were exposed as well.

A second trial, also a joint study between the University of Washington and the University of California San Francisco, was conducted across more than 600 random people in the United States. The participants were those who had been diagnosed as mildly depressed and were given one of three app based therapies; Project: EVOiPST, or an app called Health Tips.

iPST is an app that uses the principles and practices of in-person Problem Solving Therapy. Health Tips was used as a placebo control as it only offers healthy suggestions and doesn’t provide an actual stimulation or form of therapy.

Gaming for mental health?

The second study found that mildly depressed participants in all three groups showed improvement, but those who suffered higher levels of depression improved greatly when using Project: EVO and iPST as compared to Healthy Tips.

The research is an attempt to provide treatment for those who don’t has as ready access to it. Aréan made note that the apps alone were not enough and that clinical supervision was required. Without a Dr. or human interaction, people were less likely to use the apps. In the case of the second study, 58% of participants failed to download their app.

Project: EVO is based on the research of Dr. Adam Gazzaley at University of California San Francisco coupled with algorithms developed by Akili. The resultant technology is developed with a videogame and can then target neurological functions.

Re-Mission – Fighting Cancer with games

Project: EVO is being used in multiple clinical trials including for the treatment of brain injuries, ADHD, Alzheimer’s and more. In the United States, the app is awaiting FDA approval for the treatment of ADHD.

These two studies are not alone, nor the first of their kind. In 2012, a study at Stanford University found that playing a ‘serious’ videogame stimulates the brain and activates goal oriented behaviour.

That study was focusing on ‘reward-related neural activation’ and used Re-Mission, a game designed for cancer patients. Healthy participants were randomised and scanned with functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) while either playing Re-Mission or watching a stream of it.

Those who played the game as opposed to watching it experienced higher levels of activation in neural responses related to reward. Re-Mission has also been tested for its effect on young people undergoing treatment for cancer.


The study in that case found that Re-Mission was effective in enhancing “psychological and medical treatment-related behavioral outcomes.”

In my personal experience, I know that coming home after a long, hard day and playing a game I love can be as effective (at least in my mind) at improving my mood as going to the gym, seeing friends or walking my dog. I’m sure many people would agree.

The fact that serious research is being conducted into the effects of videogames on mental health and wellbeing bodes well for the industry as a whole. The more we understand about the way in which we respond to stimulus and the ways we can use that stimulus to improve out lives, the better off we’ll be.


Project: EVO wasn’t designed to treat depression, but it was found to be effective at doing so. If developers are able to create content, with the specific intent of treating mental disorders and also being entertaining, we may be able to work towards games being a widely used and accepted treatment.

Videogames are, to those who play them, important and huge parts of their lives. They mean something and give something to the players, but maybe they give us more than we realise.

[infogram id=”depressions_and_anxiety” prefix=”2Vu” format=”interactive” title=”Depression & Anxiety in Older Australians”]

Infographic based on ABS Data and beyondblue research.


Leo Stevenson
Leo Stevenson
I've been playing games for the past 27 years and have been writing for almost as long. Combining two passions in the way I'm able is a true privilege. PowerUp! is a labour of love and one I am so excited to share.

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