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"Gamification" Is Improving Mental Health Treatment In So Many Ways

Illustrations by Ramóna Udvardi

For people who struggle with mental illness, treatment and therapy can be integral. Researchers and scientists are now looking to games as a way to help treat and manage a multitude of mental health conditions. For example, smokers with mental illness smoke more cigarettes than smokers without, and reaching for a game for relief and treatment (instead of a cigarette) could be a literal lifesaver.


We partnered with truth to look at some of the games that can play a crucial role in the world of mental health therapy, from coping with stress and anxiety, to helping veterans combat PTSD, and helping to decrease cravings to smoke cigarettes.

Feeling Stressed? Try a Casual Game

The world can be a stressful place, but did you know that an antidote to anxiety may be hiding in your smartphone? A study from researchers at East Carolina University shows that playing sessions of casual video games — like simple games that feature candy, birds, maybe words with friends — can actually decrease anxiety. Researchers found concrete evidence that low-commitment games actually helped regulate heart rates in a way that was consistent with lowered stress and anxiety. What’s more, people suffering from anxiety are more likely to smoke cigarettes, so turning to these casual games instead could have an even larger impact on your health.

Virtual Reality Helps Combat PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder is one of the most painful and challenging anxiety disorders a person can go through. Usually the result of a shocking, frightening, or dangerous event, PTSD can cause flashbacks and nightmares among those who suffer from it, and it’s especially prevalent among soldiers. To make matters worse, Big Tobacco has historically targeted military personnel, and makes about $37 billion a year from people with mental health issues. Plus, Big Tobacco’s products affect the readiness and performance of the military.

But there’s been recent research into the use of virtual reality to help patients who struggle with PTSD. One such virtual reality game, Virtual Iraq, is specifically used to help veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan work through their PTSD symptoms. By using prolonged exposure therapy in a controlled environment, the patient can slowly begin to face the fearful experiences that are at the root of their traumatic memories.

Tetris Decreases Cravings

A recent study suggests that the puzzle classic Tetris, first released in 1984, could lead to a decrease in cravings of everything from alcohol to cigarettes to sex. A group of test subjects were given a device to report the severity of their cravings at regular but random intervals.


After reporting in, they then played just three minutes of Tetris and were asked to report back on their cravings. Severity dropped over thirteen percent across the group for the entirety of the test, and was even effective while the subjects were under the influence of alcohol (which, traditionally, makes certain cravings stronger). So the next time you’re craving a smoke, why not try a few minutes of everyone’s favorite block-dropper?

MMOs as Meditation

Some people mistakenly believe smoking reduces stress, when in fact nicotine increases your heart rate, tenses your muscles, and decreases the oxygen to your brain. But it turns out that massively multiplayer online (MMO) games may be a healthy alternative that actually does reduce stress. Studies delving into how massively multiplayer online (MMO) games affect players have been around since the early days of the genre. But recent research shows that gaming in these absorbing worlds could have effects similar to meditation. As with most things in life, too much of a good thing can lead to plenty of other problems, and the sweet spot seems to be moderate MMO playtime. To help keep players grounded and connected to the real world, researchers recommend playing MMOs with “real life” or “offline” friends, which will help ground the game in reality (and keep players from playing for too long).


If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues, reach out and talk to a professional right away.

Truth aims to arm people with the facts about smoking and the tobacco industry, ultimately empowering them to avoid smoking altogether. And since people with mental health issues account for 31 percent of cigarettes smoked in the US, alternative opportunities for managing stress and anxiety are key components to the movement to end smoking. Check out for more info about smoking, mental health, and the tobacco industry.

Giaco Furino is a writer living and working in Brooklyn. He contributes frequently to The Creators Project, Tribeca Shortlist’s Outtake, Rhapsody magazine, and more.


This post is a sponsored collaboration between truth and Studio@Gizmodo.