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Video games may help teens discuss mental health

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Video games may help tackle depression in young people, new research suggests.

Researcher Anouk Tuijnman has co-developed two applied video games to target depression in adolescents and will defend her PhD at Radboud University on November 28.

Tuijnman: “I wanted to explore whether we could develop materials that help and support young people in finding help. In the process, my attention soon turned to video games. 

“We were inspired by games like Stardew Valley, Animal Crossing, and Dark Souls, which we know have a positive impact for many people. 

“Video games can provide an environment in which you can meet like-minded people, but also learn to deal with difficult moments.”

Tuijnman believes that games have unique characteristics that could potentially support mental health.

Firstly, they are a great learning environment to practice behaviour without consequences. 

Researchers also know that interventions are more effective if they are entertaining and motivating. 

This is important because many existing anti-depression programmes can be quite boring. 

“The message is more likely to stick if you use video games,” Tuijnman said.

To test the hypothesis, Tuijnman joined forces with game developers to develop two applied video games: Moving Stories and ScrollQuest

In action game ScrollQuest, four players work together to defeat monsters and collect gold while responding to various social situations in the game’s story. 

Tuijnman had fathers and sons play the game together to see how they reacted to these situations. 

The researcher said: “In the game, players get rejected.

“We explored whether fathers could guide their sons in dealing with these feelings of rejection. 

“A first study found that the video game could successfully evoke feelings of rejection, and that the presence of fathers could mitigate negative feelings.

“But we did not observe any real learning moments yet. 

“A second study showed that if young adults would play the game alone with online players, they could also experience feelings of rejection, but at the same time feel motivated to continue playing. 

“We also found differences between young people who were more sensitive to rejection and those who were not.”

In Moving Stories, the players are concerned about fictional cousin Lisa being depressed

The players spend time with her in a house, trying to help her. 

They are presented with various options to help the girl, which the virtual avatar then provides feedback on. 

Tuijnman said: “We had an entire class play Moving Stories, after which we organised a Q&A session for the students with someone who had suffered from depression. 

“We saw that participation reduced some of the stigma around mental health in secondary school. 

“We also saw that conversations arose between students on the subject.”

There are currently no plans to deploy the two video games in their current form.

Tuijnman said “If we want to do it well, we need more budget and time. 

“However, ScrollQuest and Moving Stories do offer valuable insights for research and practice. 

“They prove that video games have a lot of potential for improving mental health.”

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