Game over for mental illness

Remember the original Dr Mario game on Nintendo? Zapping germs with tablets was somewhat therapeutic. 

Well, now real health professionals are getting involved in computer games. But these doctors aren’t pushing pills – in fact, they want you to treat yourself.

Computer games can treat even the most severe psychiatric disorders.

Selected as a 2018 Spotlight finalist, the research collection Computers and games for mental health and well-being demonstrates the efficacy of games as part of the treatment for the most severe psychiatric disorders – as well as new high-tech self-help tools to support positive cognitive, emotional, and behavioral change. It also provides much-needed guidelines on development of effective game-based therapies. 

With these positive findings and leadership, the research collection is already hugely influential in the field. To date it has received an average of 4-5 citations per article, as well as more than 150,000 article views, 22,000 article downloads and intense public attention with coverage by Newsweek, Forbes and the World Economic Forum. 
Dr Yasser Khazaal explains why he and fellow scientist-practitioners in psychiatry, psychotherapy and psychiatric nursing launched this Research Topic, some of its outcomes, and what winning the 2018 Frontiers Spotlight Award would mean for global mental health.

Why was this Research Topic created? 

“In terms of years spent living with a disability, mental illness tops the list of global disease burden,” explains Khazaal. “Yet less than half of these people receive treatment. And for those who do, important therapeutic options – particularly talking therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy – are often not available for long enough to achieve remission or prevent relapse.”

Given such limited resources, empowering people to treat themselves is essential for achieving big improvements in mental health and wellbeing.

Games are a way to facilitate this self-help. They create a safe alternate reality where people can subvert and alter the decision-making, belief and behavioral problems and biases they face in the real world.

And with well over half the world’s population now online, Khazaal believes that games accessed via mobile and wireless technologies – and increasingly, using virtual reality and AI – are ideally placed to help identify and improve mental health issues.

“Worldwide access to these rapidly developing technologies facilitates development, assessment and use of games for mental health that are personalized, responsive and immersive.

“The industry is already very active, but scientists and doctors aren’t as involved. This Research Topic aims to provide evidence-based results that can be integrated into game development and healthcare practice to improve the quality of these tools and their use.”

What type of research is included?   

Computers and games for mental health and well-being explores diverse solutions for mental health needs. 

The researchers created games and other interactive programs using various media like avatars, smartphone apps and virtual reality, and tested their efficacy.

Each of these is also applied in a variety of ways to modify a range of cognitive, emotional and behavioral parameters – further demonstrating the creativity and innovation which Khazaal believes characterize this Research Topic.

“Different articles describe very different virtual-reality based treatments.

“One uses a virtual town to train attention, memory and planning.

“Another elicits gambling cravings to practice abstinence techniques.

“And a third helps with social anxiety disorder by modifying attentional biases.”

What are some outcomes of the Research Topic?

Some of these interventions already show a promising impact on the most severe and debilitating mental health conditions.

“For example, people with schizophrenia suffering from active psychosis lost conviction in their delusions after playing a card game designed to train hypothetical reasoning.”

One study combined outcomes from previous clinical trials to the efficacy of computer-based therapies.

“This meta-analysis included almost 700 participants – treated for depression, PTSD, alcoholism, ADHD and learning difficulties – and found an overall substantial positive effect of games on symptoms.”

Other papers highlight the gap between these positive results and the uptake and adherence of game-based therapies outside of controlled trials.

“To address this, an international collaboration recommended important changes to the way these therapies are designed and assessed – for example, involving end users more actively.”

Why should this Research Topic win the 2018 Spotlight Award?

“The high drop-off rates outside of trials and low integration of game-based therapies into everyday clinical practice remain some of the biggest challenges for the field.”

Winning the 2018 Frontiers Spotlight Award — with a prize of US $100,000 to fund a conference on the topic — would enable researchers to overcome these challenges, believes Khazaal.

“A win for our Research Topic and the resulting conference would attract and stimulate collaborations of academics, clinicians, industry, public health agents and end-users.

“Only by involving all of these parties can we overcome the current limitations and achieve the enormous potential of computer and games to improve mental health around the globe.”

About the Frontiers Spotlight Award

The annual Frontiers Spotlight Award supports emerging and important fields of research published as a Research Topic in Frontiers journals. The winning team of Topic Editors receives US$100,000 to organize an international scientific conference on the theme of their successful Research Topic. Learn more about the Award

About Frontiers Research Topics

Research Topics are peer-reviewed article collections published around specialized themes. They bring together leading researchers from different institutions, locations and fields of interest, who collaborate and contribute articles.

Published on Frontiers’ award-winning platform, Research Topics are fully open and accessible, and become highly visible collections of work, enhancing both the readership and citations of articles. Learn more about Research Topics

How to enter

Every Research Topic that closes within the award period and is completed with at least 10 articles, will be considered for the Spotlight Award. Shape your field and have the chance to organize your own conference — suggest your Research Topic today!

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Research Topic Editors

Yasser Khazaal   Université de Genève, Switzerland

Yasser Khazaal
Université de Genève, Switzerland

Jérôme Favrod   University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland, Switzerland

Jérôme Favrod
University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland, Switzerland

Stéphane Bouchard    Université du Québec en Outaouais, Canada

Stéphane Bouchard
Université du Québec en Outaouais, Canada

François Borgeat   Université de Montréal, Canada

François Borgeat
Université de Montréal, Canada

Anna Sort   University of Barcelona, Spain

Anna Sort
University of Barcelona, Spain