Smartphone games get a bad rap: pointless time-wasters that pull people away from friends and family and lure them to spend money on virtual goods. But what if there were a phone game that trained you to be productive and self-motivated, and even helped to treat depression? That’s the subject of a current study by Patricia Areán, PhD, the director of the UW CREATIV Lab.
“A video game is lots of fun, and you can easily download it and play it at home,” says Areán, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “With a little management from a therapist, this could be a really accessible treatment.”
So how can a game help with depression? For many people, depression can feel like a heavy, invisible weight dragging them down, making it difficult to concentrate, start tasks or make decisions. That’s where therapeutic apps come in. Using colorful graphics, engaging music and positive reinforcement, these games help players build their skills at multitasking and ignoring distractions. With practice, patients can apply or transfer these acquired skills to real-life situations by blocking out negative thoughts or starting a task they’ve been avoiding.
“Basically, you’re exercising parts of your brain that we think are associated with depression,” says Areán.
In Band Together, a game still in the testing phase, players are in charge of driving a variety of cute creatures to their musical performances. The more characters you pick up, the richer and more vibrant their music grows. As you navigate around town, you also have to watch the road, avoiding obstacles and picking up bonus stars. Meanwhile, a bandleader cheers you on, praising your achievements and encouraging you to keep going.
“I think it’s a fun game, and it certainly helped with my mood and focus,” says Myra Theriot, an adult study participant who played the game for a month. “It’s very challenging, and it was a good diversion for me to have something that I enjoyed doing every day.” In fact, she liked it so much that she didn’t want to give the game back at the end of the study.
“It made me feel like I had something to conquer,” Theriot says.
Areán cautions that the apps aren’t intended as a complete replacement for therapy. “People still want a live human being helping them out,” she says. Instead, she envisions using apps to supplement in-person sessions, much like combining antidepressants with therapy — with one key difference.
“Instead of prescribing a pill, we’re prescribing a game,” says Areán.