Video Games and Depression: Not a Cure, But a Big Help

I think we all pretty much agree that 2020 has been hard on everyone. Many of us have been struggling to stay positive. Now, winter is entering the scene. This means darker skies and colder weather. Seasonal affective disorder can be difficult for people every year. However, experts are suggesting that this year will be worse (thanks again 2020). Can video games help with this?

Yes. I think they can. If you want to skip over the scientific parts and go right to the games, scroll down a little.

What is SAD?

To put it simply, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is caused by lower levels of sunlight. Depending on where you live, this can be a big deal in the winter when the days are shorter. Less sunlight causes a drop in serotonin levels, which regulates our mood. It also means less production of melatonin, which helps us to sleep normally. And this year, it gets compounded with the depression from the COVID-19 pandemic, which many of us have already been experiencing to one degree or other.

Stress, health problems, social isolation, and more have already been much higher than normal. So the onset of SAD just makes things worse.

I am not a doctor. I am not trying to solve the world’s problems. Depression is a serious condition and urge you to PLEASE seek treatment if you are struggling. Even if you do not think you are struggling, it can be extremely helpful at times like these to have someone to talk to. There are many online resources which can help. Nobody should ever have to suffer alone.

If you are in immediate distress, PLEASE call 911 or your local emergency helpline.

But What About Video Games?

For simplicity, I am going to assume you play video games already. With that in mind, have you considered that what games you play may make a difference in your mood?

Again…not a doctor here, but it has been scientifically proven that video games stimulate the brain and affect cognition. Not only do positive outcomes and rewards in video games generate dopamine (the neurotransmitter in the brain associated with pleasure) but the games also have an incredible ability to affect our immediate emotional state.

If you don’t believe me, try playing Phasmophobia for a while and see how you feel. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with horror games. Rather, I’m simply using that as an example of how your mind and body respond to what you are playing.

A wise therapist once told me that when I am feeling depressed I should play a video game. Especially if I am starting to ruminate and need to stop the cycle in my head. However, he said I should set a timer for 20 minutes when I start to play. After the timer goes off, I step away and evaluate how I feel.

Am I feeling happier? Sadder? Angry? In essence- is this game helping my emotional state, or hurting it? If it’s helping and I’m enjoying myself I can keep playing. If not, I need to try a different game or activity.

Totally unsurprisingly, I have found that certain games helped me feel happier, while others did not. For me, the ones that turned out to be helpful were ones with more upbeat, positive stories and environments or ones that were more geared towards the repetitive grind which allowed me to enter a more meditative-like state.

If you are feeling more down than usual know that you are not alone. In addition to other methods of self-care, try focusing on how you feel while playing your favorite games. Some games may need to go on the back-burner for a while until you are in a better mood. Others may surprise you in how they help cheer you up.

Keep in mind that the games that make you feel happier may not be the same as what helps someone else feel happier. For me, World of Warcraft is a huge happiness boost. Not necessarily anything about the game, but just the fact that I have played it for 16 years and it is like a comfortable security blanket. So, experiment with what games make you feel better on your own.

To get started, here is a small list of games that are generally found to be happiness-boosting and depression-beating

Stardew Valley

Stardew Valley. A simulation role-playing game that is relaxing and cheerful as you plant crops, get to know other villagers, and even fight a few monsters in the caves. It is on basically every platform these days, and you can’t go wrong with it.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: A Shared Horizon

Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Another simulation game, but with no monsters. This is one of the most relaxing games out there right now. Your character gets to help develop a deserted island and invite anthropomorphic animal villagers to join you. Make NPC friends, pick weeds, collect fish and bugs… and just zone out.

My Time at Portia

My Time At Portia

My Time at Portia. This simulation role-playing game has a few more monsters than the above two and is set in a post-apocalyptic world. However, don’t start thinking it’s going to be all dark and Fallout-like. This game is bright and cheerful. Craft items, take on commissions, expand your workshop, and maybe even find romance.

Farm Together

Farm Together. There are a lot of farming simulators out there, some more realistic than others. Farm Together is much more cartoony than the super-realistic. Obviously by the title, you can also play multiplayer in this game with either strangers or friends. Grow crops, build fun buildings (such as a lunar space station or circus tent), tend to animals, and just relax.

Overcooked! 2

Overcooked 2. If you have someone to play with (up to 4 people), this cooperative cooking simulation will have you all laughing, as long as everyone understands that you will fail. A lot. Hilariously. This game can be pure chaos as you are working together in the kitchen to cook foods to fight off the Unbread.

Cat Quest (1 and 2)

Cat Quest. The Cat Quest games are a humor filled take on typical rpgs. Explore the world while fighting monsters, searching dungeons, and completing quests.

Paper Mario: The Origami King

Paper Mario: The Origami King. Really, pretty much any Mario game could go on this list. I chose Paper Mario: The Origami King specifically because it has a lot of humor in the storytelling and the bosses you get to fight include things like a stapler. It’s hard not to laugh while playing this game.

Pokemon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! And Let’s Go, Eevee!

Pokemon Let’s Go. Pokemon games in general are very cheerful. The Let’s Go games are a great place to start if you are new to the world of Pokemon. As Pokemon trainers you are catching and raising Pokemon and exploring a wonderful world.  

Dragon Quest Builders 1 & 2

Dragon Quest Builders. DQ is a pretty big deal around the Geek to Geek Media Network. The Builders games made it on this list because they are action role-playing sandbox games which allow you to use a lot of creativity in building as well as fight a lot of monsters and enjoy being in the Dragon Quest world.

Muffin Knight

Muffin Knight. An arena-based action platformer. You can play as several different fairy-tale characters fighting off attacking monsters while trying to collect muffins. There’s a lot of silly, wacky humor in this game (the unicorn drops rainbow poop bombs for instance) and is fast paced with short levels to keep your brain engaged.

Lonely Mountains: Downhill

Lonely Mountains: Downhill. A sports racing game where you get to explore the outdoors while racing your mountain bike down a mountain. Experience nature while listening to birds and watching butterflies … and then you crash into a tree or fly off the edge of a cliff. Despite the painful deaths, you just start again at your last checkpoint and keep going. The dying part may not sound happy, but this game really does leave you smiling.

Video Games Can’t Cure Depression. But They Do Help.

Experiment with how you are feeling when you play certain games. If you have been feeling down, playing a cheerful game may help. However, I would never suggest that it be the only thing you do. In fact, DON’T let it be the only thing you do. Practice self-care. Exercise and eat well. Seek help if you need it. Therapists can be a very useful tool. Above all, take care of yourself. You are important.

If you need someone to talk to, please reach out to us at Geek to Geek Media on our Slack or Discord or email or Twitter. We’re here for you.

Elinzia The Crafting Rogue

Elinzia The Crafting Rogue

Elinzia sews, she crafts, she crochets, and she plays a LOT of video games. She is the co-host of The Nerdberg Review podcast, host of My HGTV Addiction podcast, and runs the Etsy store, TheCraftingRogue. You can also find her RPG musings on SwitchRPG.com

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