Studies: New Source For Therapy For PTSD And Addiction Is Mind-Rotting Video Games

from the building-blocks dept

If you’re of a certain age, you will remember the derision with which video games as an entertainment industry were met some time ago. While many of the claims about gaming encountered during that time, such as the impact of violent games on young minds or the assured claims that playing games would rot the brains of young people who played them, please understand how much louder that silliness was shouted years back. I can personally recall my own father insisting that if I played video games, I would end up having oatmeal for brains. Good one, Dad, except I played them anyway and now I’m a real-life grown-up with a family and two jobs and a house and all that jazz. Jazz, of course, being a previous receptacle for many of these same claims, but I digress.

Less vociferous have been those on the other side of the “video games will rot your brain” position, but reverse claims do exist. Some have posited that there could actually be benefits to playing video games, from instilling in players a baseline sense of achievement, improving cognitive ability, or preparing them to be better at business than they would be otherwise. And now a recent study suggests that simple video games may in fact be useful therapeutically for those who have suffered trauma or addiction.

Researchers report that Tetris—a classic game that takes hold of spatial and visual systems in the brain as players align irregular polygons—seems to jumble the mind’s ability to process and store fresh traumatic memories. Those improperly preserved memories are subsequently less likely to resurface as intrusive, distressing flashbacks, which can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, complicated grief, and other mental health issues. For those struggling with cravings or addiction, other research has found that Tetris’ mental grasp can also diminish the intensity of hankerings and help game players fight off real-life dependencies.

Though the conclusions are based on small studies in need of repeating and further investigation, one thing is clear: the potential video-game therapy has scant side-effects and potential harms. Twenty-minutes of Tetris is just good fun, if nothing else.

As the article states, more research needs to be done before the American Medical Association begins prescribing Tetris to heroin addicts and victims of car accidents, but the limited studies show rather striking results. In the UK, 71 real-world patients who had been in traumatic vehicle accidents were asked to play 20 minutes of Tetris while at the hospital, while the control group simply logged what would be their normal activity during their stay. Those who played the game reported nearly two-thirds fewer incidents of flashbacks or PTSD. The theory is that playing the game works within the brain to suppress traumatic memory of these incidents, memories that are not useful in a therapeutic sense. When the researchers checked back a month later, the experimental and control groups had similar mental health scores, once the game playing had ceased. Keep in mind we’re talking about 20 minutes of play during the hospital stay.

As for its impact on addiction, the results for playing Tetris were more muted, but still substantial.

In late 2015, a group of English and Australian researchers reported that playing Tetris could dampen cravings for addictive substances, such as nicotine, alcohol, and drugs, as well as other vices, such as food and sex. The study, published in Addictive Behaviors, followed 31 undergraduate volunteers who carried around iPods for a week and filled out surveys seven times a day about their cravings. Fifteen of the participants also got to play three minutes of Tetris after the surveys, then report on their cravings again. When the week was up, the researchers found that playing Tetris consistently reduced craving strength by 13.9 percent—about a fifth. That, the authors explained, could be just enough for people to ignore those cravings and avoid their vice.

The researchers again hypothesized that the game’s ability to seize visual and spatial processing in the brain is key to the health benefits. In this case, addiction and cravings are often driven by visual fantasies of having that drink, drug, or what-have-you, the authors explained.

As already stated, more studies need to be done before drawing any firm conclusions, but it seems clear that despite all the shouting about the horror of playing video games and its impact on the brain, the flipside to that might actually be true. And then, finally, perhaps the world can move on to its next moral panic.

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Comments on “Studies: New Source For Therapy For PTSD And Addiction Is Mind-Rotting Video Games”

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24 Comments
Bergman (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Actually? To an extent they are. Violent people will be violent, and they will be violent with or without a game. People who just need a stress outlet before they snap and become violent can work that stress out through games.

As a population demographic, gamers in general have roughly one tenth the violent crime rate you’d expect of them when compared to non-gamers of the same ethnicity, age group, poverty level, etc.

Phalen (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Um… you’ll play a lot of video games?

Seems like a better situation than uncontrollably reliving a traumatic experience.

My friend used to smoke cigarettes. Pack a day. To quit, he chewed bubblegum whenever he wanted a smoke. Now he’s addicted to gum. Same difference, right? That bubblegum will kill him just the same.

I’m addicted to caffeine. Ruined my life. How can a person possibly hold down a job when he drinks coffee everyday?! Sometimes before and after lunch! Help me…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: pwned?

I’m saying checking out is not the cure for anything. Escaping from life by pluging into a stupid box that pounds on the pleasure center of the brain for hours is only avoidance, not a solution. It is convenient for the other people because the patient might stop screaming, but only on the outside. PTSD people need to learn to manage their own panic not escape into another world and hide from it and from life.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: pwned?

Good thing that the article does not even mention escapism, but stimulating the spatial and visual systems to influence how traumatic memories are formed and cravings are triggered (to be fair, I wonder if similar results could be achieve by giving them a rubiks cube).
Also the patients and volunteers only played for 20 minutes or 3 minutes respectively, so not even close to “hours”.

So, while you may have a valid point, it barely relates to the article, which I’ll just assume you have at least skimmed, instead of just commenting after reading the headline.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 pwned?

Its a bullshit study. 1. traumatic memories don’t just go away because you play a game. 2. the patients were a. self assessing in b. a non-normal situation ie hospital. So the methodology is not scientific because they are relying on self assessment. The only way they could tell if the person was experiencing less trauma would be to base the results on concrete evidence such as heart and brainwave activity which would make the study much less easy to conduct but more valid. Or a quantifiable measure such as reduction of outbursts or increase in ability to sleep. This study is relying on flimsey criteria to make fairly radical claims.

Reducing the concept to the basics is that they claim that playing a video game will make the patient forget their trauma. Notice the word suppression in the article, that is what that means. Playing a video game will not make them forget their trauma. The trauma memories will always be there. The goal should be to reduce the patient’s reaction to the trauma memories so that the person can live a normal life. This goal is not achived by excaping into a game and avoiding learning how to perceive the memories in a different less stressful way.

To the commenter below. Yes, I may be an ass. Yes I would tell the person to get a prosthesis and walk it off instead of just wallowing their life away.

Phalen (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 pwned?

  1. traumatic memories don’t just go away because you play a game.

Good thing no one made that claim then, but I do notice that you have no source for your claim. Traumatic memories get suppressed by people all the time for myriad reasons; you can prove that playing a game can never contribute to that suppression?

It’s not a new concept at all. Isn’t it the plot to The Wizard?

  1. the patients were a. self assessing in b. a non-normal situation ie hospital…

Well yeah… it’s kind of necessary that patients self-assess when dealing with their emotional state, isn’t it? A researcher can’t know what’s going on in someone’s head yet. But I digress. You follow that statement up with:

The only way they could tell if the person was experiencing less trauma would be to base the results on concrete evidence such as heart and brainwave activity which would make the study much less easy to conduct but more valid.

Talk about a "non-normal" situation! Hooked up to heart monitors and electrodes in, I presume, a laboratory of some kind. How would you suggest we get objective, quantifiable data about emotional states without asking the subject or putting them in a non-normal situation?

Oh yeah! We also have to wait for the traumatic experiences to occur, so they can be studied while they’re still fresh. We have to make concessions to ethically study something like this. I don’t think anyone is going to get behind scientists causing trauma just to study it objectively in ‘totally normal’ laboratory situations.

Reducing the concept to the basics is that they claim that playing a video game will make the patient forget their trauma.

No they do not. They claim that a specific type of engagement with the spatial and visual systems of the brain can impede and/or "jumble" the transfer of fresh traumatic memories from working memory to long-term memory. This makes them less likely to resurface uncontrollably for the subject. Of course they don’t totally forget a trauma; they simply gain more control over recall of that memory.

The goal should be to reduce the patient’s reaction to the trauma memories so that the person can live a normal life.

They can’t live a normal life if they are randomly and /or constantly reliving traumatic memories that are resurfacing beyond their control. A person having a traumatic flashback doesn’t know they’re flashing back. They can’t control their reaction. What can be controlled, possibly, is unintentional recall of the trauma. I don’t understand why you would oppose this. Especially via a method that might require no medication or surgery.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: pwned?

from what i just read, the process of playing the game meant that the traumatic experience couldn’t sit in the the memory and turn into long term memory, in other words GAMING MADE THE EVENT LESS LIKELY TO STICK AND CAUSE FLASHBACKS. Humans are constantly recieving and discarding information, all the game is doing is creating a scenario where the traumatic experience is considered “useless” or “unneeded” and the brain is reacting accordingly.

Anonymous Coward says:

You'll understand when older, sonny: your father wished for the brilliant person you could have been instead of "normal".

Oh, he’ll never say it, but every time he looks at you he thinks: If only you had spent those thousands of hours doing anything useful instead of in catatonic addictional state…

And one day you’ll think the same of your kids. If only they weren’t addicted to entertainments…

Read “Brave New World” in which the drug “Soma” and television are practically the same, to keep the population docile, that’s the whole point of “entertainments” now.

ThaumaTechnician (profile) says:

You forgot surgeons.

The impact of video games on training surgeons in the 21st century.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17309970

"Past video game play in excess of 3 h/wk correlated with 37% fewer errors and 27% faster completion [of laparoscopy and suturing]."

If you’re undergoing surgery, make a point of asking the surgeon which computer games [s]he plays. Seriously.

Anonymous Coward says:

Only traumatic memories?

Tetris… seems to jumble the mind’s ability to process and store fresh traumatic memories

If the game interferes with memory formation, wouldn’t that kind of support your father’s point? Is there any evidence it only impacts traumatic memories? I don’t see anything in the article.

To check, they could have people go through a maze or read a map or some text, then play Tetris and see if it disrupts those memories.

And although the article said Tetris can combat some forms of addictive behavior, it didn’t say anything about the addictiveness of Tetris itself (much less bad than many addictions, but I’ve seen signs of addiction in some players).

Phalen (user link) says:

Re: Only traumatic memories?

To check, they could have people go through a maze or read a map or some text, then play Tetris and see if it disrupts those memories.

The problem is that then you’d be comparing retention of memories that the test subject wants to keep versus memories that the subject is actively trying to forget.

Playing Tetris could have a profoundly different effect on the mapping of different types of memories.

Anonymous Coward says:

While many of the claims about gaming encountered during that time, such as the impact of violent games on young minds or the assured claims that playing games would rot the brains of young people who played them, please understand how much louder that silliness was shouted years back.

Was there supposed to be a ‘still’ in here or something?

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Video games are part of my depression / anxiety treatment.

…and have been for years, even when video games were purported to rot my brain and incline me towards violence. And numerous PTSD (military vet or otherwise) cases I’ve encountered rely on video games as part of their coping system.

Incidentally, when fiction of scandal and intrigue first became available, it was thought that women would not be able to differentiate between fantasy and reality.

It turns out our ability to differentiate is so effective it works against us. Drone pilots face a job that is supposed to have all the distancing advantages of video games, yet they have to grieve and agonize about the civilians they were ordered to massacre. It’s a factor shortening the service careers of the pilots, and we’re not recruiting replacements fast enough.

So yeah, shooting zombies in game is a lot easier than shooting enemies — even doomed, infected, mindless ones — in real life.

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