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Video Games Being Developed To Target Depression, Anxiety

BOSTON (CBS) - Video games are often thought of as mindless entertainment. But some psychologists now believe specific games can be tailored to help alleviate mental health problems.

Games are being developed to target issues related to depression and anxiety, for example.

Cheri Plevek often winds down playing one of these games. She feels they help her relax and get rid of stress. They are also helping her in a lifelong battle with depression and anxiety. “You have quests that you do, and you earn points by doing something as simple as getting up and out of your chair and getting moving, to call a friend,” she explained.

With tens of millions of Americans suffering from mental health disorders, psychologists believe video games could be a new way to reach people who need help.

Psychology professor Tracy Dennis said many of the games look exactly like typical video games. “They may have cartoon characters, they could have missions, but embedded in that game are treatment mechanisms.”

Dennis designed a game called “Personal Zen.” It’s available thru iTunes.

Preliminary findings are encouraging. After 20 minutes of playing, the brain starts to process negative information differently.

Dennis explained, “We can train an anxious person to pay less attention to threat, to pay more attention to positive things in the game, and then that eventually transfers to how they look at it, and pay attention in the real world.”

The National Institutes of Health is now funding a study on one such game, saying “Gaming technologies may offer promising new ways to supplement traditional medical care.”

Psychologists are hoping that these types of games could appeal to patients who might be reluctant to seek treatment.

Scott Bea, a clinical psychologist, thinks “people resist less if it feels like a game, if it feels like fun. And we can train people even while they are having fun.”

There is some concern, however, that some people might underestimate the serious nature of their illness, and think that simply downloading a game is a solution.

Bea added, “The game itself might not be tailored enough to their specific condition, so again we may be missing the target if we don't have some guidance on what the real target is.”

Patients like Plevek believe there are positive benefits to the games and that they complement her regular therapy. “When you add in the activities, quests, and other things that help you raise your mood and feel better about yourself, it's just a joy, a joy to play.”

Although many psychologists are happy with the early feedback, they say it is still too early to prescribe these games as part of a patient’s treatment plan.

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