The Role of Video Games and Virtual Reality in Psychiatric Treatment

Interactive media can play a role in mental disorder diagnosis and treatment.

Individuals and families of all ages are consumers of interactive entertainment in many forms. Games have matured as an artistic medium and they now explore emotional experiences that represent a wide spectrum of human emotions.

The game Journey, which has been dubbed by critics as a cinematic experience, is being used in clinical studies for depression at the Behavioral Sciences Institute (BSI) in Radboud University Nijmegen in Holland. The BSI is also behind of Mindlight, a sweet-scary biofeedback-driven game for children with anxiety. Its aesthetic merit beyond clinical applications has landed it at the Games for Change festival in New York City this month.

Virtual reality (VR) is also finally getting to a price of entry (in terms of hardware) that is accessible to consumers and can provide powerful experiences for lay audiences. The Google Cardboard viewer can be acquired for less than $40, and the University of Southern California’s VR2GO can be made for free. Several companies are releasing higher-end hardware that is under $300, less than what a game console costs, making the platform available to a new generation of authors who are eager to please.

Perhaps the lowest common denominator of interactive entertainment is what consumers and content generators enjoy through socially networked media, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Unfortunately, as the public lives increasingly in a networked and digital world, psychiatry remains deeply skeptical and removed from technological advances for going beyond patient engagement to interactive diagnostics and treatment. Interactive entertainment elicits emotions, can help regulate affect, and can provide “virtuous” pleasure of an epicurean era in which happiness (ataraxia) is the absence of unnecessary mental and physical suffering. But why isn’t all this technology being used widely by psychiatry?

We recently hosted a discussion group at the 2015 American College of Psychiatrists (ACP) annual meeting to try to understand where the barriers and opportunities exist. But before we get into that, let’s quickly review the state of evidence in the field.