Do Video Games Make Depression Worse?

Until recently, I had never considered the idea that my gaming habit, which could charitably be described as heavy, could be harmful to my mental health. It wasn't just that I dismissed that idea; the idea had never popped into my head.

But as psychological professionals debate whether or not "gaming addiction" should be listed as a condition in the next update to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the psychological Bible) — and as I finally take my mental health seriously — I am re-evaluating that idea. I'm re-evaluating it, even though my psychiatrist and my therapist have never discussed gaming as an issue.

Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot of scientific data, in the form of psychological studies, to help me out in my journey of self-discovery. There are, however, a few researchers who are intent on studying the possible link between gaming and mental disorders like depression. I spoke with two of them to get a more personal perspective than I would have gotten from simply reading their work.


The first researcher is Dr. Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University. He and a handful of other researchers, performed a study a few years back that was published in the journal Pediatrics. It was called Pathological Video Game Use Among Youths: A Two-Year Longitudinal Study. (A longitudinal study looks at one group of subjects over time.) In this study, they looked at the gaming habits of schoolchildren in Singapore over the course of two years to try to determine if what they refer to as "pathological gaming" has an impact on the subjects' lives and mental health.

They found a definite correlation between heavy gaming and symptoms of depression.

"I was expecting to find that the depression led to gaming," Gentile told me. "But we found the opposite in that study. The depression seemed to follow the gaming. As kids became addicted — if you want to use that word — then their depression seemed to get worse. And, as they stopped being addicted, the depression seemed to lift."

Gentile: "I was expecting to find that the depression led to gaming. But we found the opposite in that study."

Despite the evidence, Gentile didn't quite buy that.

"I don't really think [the depression] is following. I think it's truly comorbid. When a person gets one disorder, they often get more. If you've been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a year or two later you might end up with anxiety problems or social phobias. They all start interacting with each other and make each other worse. [The test subjects' gaming 'addiction' and mental health problems] are close enough in time that they're probably affecting each other. As you get more depressed you retreat more into games, which doesn't help, because it doesn't actually solve the problem. It doesn't help your depression, so your depression gets worse, so you play more games, so your depression gets worse, etc. It becomes a negative spiral."

The other researcher I talked do is one Daniel Loton, a PhD candidate at Victoria University in Australia. His study is also longitudinal, but over five months instead of two years. The other main difference is that the participants in this study are older, with an average age of 25.

Loton's study, which also looks into a link between gaming and mental health, has not yet been published, and, indeed, he has not even completed analysis of all the data in his surveys. So far, he has only fully analysed how a gaming habit relates to a person's coping style. For the purposes of this discussion, that is perfect, because Gentile's study did not examine gaming as a coping mechanism.

Just so we're clear, Loton defines coping styles as "constantly-changing cognitive and behavioural effort to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person." More or less, that simply means how a person deals with profound stress in general.

There are three terms you need to know here: approach, distraction and withdrawal. Approach coping would be a person utilising his or her support circle (family, friends, etc.) when dealing with problems, and, if he or she is suffering from a mental illness, seeing mental health professionals for treatment. Distraction coping is when a person attempts to, ahem, distract himself or herself from their problems for short periods of time. Withdrawal coping is essentially not coping at all; when you withdraw, you aren't even trying to help your situation because you've given up hope.

In Loton's study, he found that the link between a person's gaming habits and his or her mental health is bridged by that person's coping style. Loton asserts that whether or not a person's gaming habit can be considered unhealthy — whether or not he or she is pathological, as Gentile would say — correlates strongly with coping style. If a person tends to utilise approach coping, then his gaming habits probably won't negatively impact his life, even if he does what others might consider to be an excessive amount of gaming. If a person usually withdraws, on the other hand, then he is more likely to become a pathological gamer while also having what Loton calls poorer mental health outcomes.


When I lost my job in January, I struggled immensely. For the next few weeks, I would spend an hour or so a day looking for more work, while devoting the rest of my day to playing Star Wars: The Old Republic. It was absurd and definitely out of the ordinary for me, but I was depressed. That's how I dealt with it.

Given that anecdote falls well within the realm of the studies mentioned above, I shared it with both researchers, and I got very different responses. We'll start with Gentile.

Gentile: "Even kids know that [gaming is] not a very good coping mechanism... And so the problem stays there, ready for you once you're done."

"What you did is absolutely no different, even at this time when you were depressed, than you do when you're not depressed," Gentile told me. "It just was more extreme, because you were dealing with more extreme issues at that time. And even kids as young as 10 will say they do this. They'll play games or watch movies as a coping mechanism. But even kids know that it's not a very good coping mechanism. It's a distraction. It doesn't actually solve the problem. And so the problem stays there, ready for you once you're done.

Loton put a more positive spin on the situation, connecting my game-playing to my efforts to find work.

"Do you feel as though during that time, that those hours of video game playing is what actually allowed you to apply for the jobs? So if you didn't have something else that you enjoyed like that at the time, you would have been applying for less jobs?"

As I heard these responses, I didn't feel like either of them was wrong, even though they disagreed.


Any good psychological professional will tell you that long-term, clinical depression is far too complex to blame on any one thing. There are usually all sorts of environmental factors in addition to whatever imbalance a person might have in his or her head. Sure, you can sometimes look at a particular depressive episode and point at a cause, but it doesn't do it justice to ignore everything else that plays a part.

In order to discover just what part The Old Republic played in the episode I described above, we need to take a closer look at what was really going on inside my head. That is no easy task for most people, including myself, but I will do my best to share a holistic view of that situation with you.

When I lost my job, I was a dead man walking. I was not at a point in my mental health treatment that I could deal with something like that in any sort of positive way, and my friends, bless them, weren't properly equipped to carry me through something like that. It was only a matter of time until I tried to hurt myself.

SWTOR was my morphine. It did not fix me, but it delayed the inevitable and made me comfortable. It held my bad feelings down while I searched in vain for anything tangibly good in the world. The fact that something good did not come in the 16 days between the end of my employment and a night I tried to kill myself is not the game's fault.

SWTOR was my morphine. It did not fix me, but it delayed the inevitable and made me comfortable.

For 16 days, I lived in a state of numbness, shocked at what had happened but not dead. Some part of me was sad, but my daily dose of SWTOR allowed me to forget that sadness most of the time. It didn't end up making me happy, and it didn't find me a job, and it didn't stop me from eventually going off the edge.

It also didn't send me over that edge. Without SWTOR, I would have found other, similarly ineffective ways of managing my situation, and I would have spent more time drinking, and the outcome would have been the same. It's likely, indeed, that without SWTOR my moment of truth would have come sooner. That game gave me more of a shot at life than anything else did. (And, as I've written before, in a roundabout way, it helped me.)

Games are not my problem. My problem is that I have a severe mood disorder and a boatload of emotional baggage. When we examine the cause of my myriad emotional issues, it would be unfair to say it was caused by that one thing that makes my life seem more bearable than it otherwise would be.

Were I another person, I would probably view those events differently. Indeed, everyone has different factors that contribute to their depression. We all react to those factors in our own ways. A broad psychological study looks for what people have in common and cannot account for each unique circumstance. The researchers I talked to may find ways to deliver some truths about what happens to us when we're depressed and playing games.


So what's the answer here? Well, I can't really give you one for anybody but myself. All I know is that in the case of this one person — me — gaming was a lifeline. Loton said as much. Eventually that lifeline broke, and that's because, as Gentile offered, playing games a lot was not the solution to my very large problems.

That means that gaming is not bad for me and my mental health.

Ultimately, that means that gaming is not bad for me and my mental health, but maybe I could use a more productive coping mechanism. It's really that simple.

That analysis may not apply to you. You are different from me. You can learn, broadly, from my take on my situation. You and/or your therapist have the ability to know you better than I or any psychological study can. That, ultimately, is the lesson and the key to understanding whether, when life darkens and we suffer from depression, playing games is a help or a hindrance, a negative force or a relief.

If depression is affecting you or someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Phil Owen is a freelance entertainment journalist whose work you might have seen at IGN, GameFront, Appolicious and many, many other places. You can follow him on Twitter at @philrowen.


    I have depression, and this hits home to me. It's easy to sink into gaming, but I do find it something comforting. I organize my life so that I only have a few hours a week to game, though, and will stop gaming in favor of literally everything else.

    As someone suffering from depression, taking time to wait for a perfect head shot while sniping tends to get me out of a 'stage' than put me into one. It's a sense of fulfillment and a point that you can actually do something. That you're not just a waste of space. It acts as the distraction mentioned in the article, since the approaches that have been offered to me are not really viable. But other things do the same thing as video games, like Sudoku or cooking. Video games aren't bad in moderation, nor is it a solution to the problem.

    I'm a Psychologist and a gamer; people can claim anything they want in this field; however there is a difference between correltation and causation; i.e. the gaming leading to me peer reviewed evidence or go home!

    I actually believe gaming contributed to getting me out of depression. For me it was the break down of a long term relationship that sent me into a depression, I wasnt in the mood for doing anything, barely made an effort at work and spent most of my night's thinking about me failing the relationship.

    But the Mass Effect 3 came out, and I dunno but somehow that game just turned my mind around. perhaps it was the struggle that Shepard faced being like mine in a way and he never let anything get I'm down even when he was at he lowest, he just picked himself up and kept going. perhaps it was the people he was surrounded with and how they reminded me of my own friends I had and I could finally see the efforts they were going to help me.

    I really believe Mass Effect helped me out of my worst spot.

      See, in my opinion involving yourself in gaming because you aren't in the mood for doing anything is exactly the 'morphine' being spoke of in this article. I dunno, I use gaming as an excuse to burn time and not deal with my issues, I admit this. Different for you, perhaps.

      I found the mass effect series was a lifeline for me during the worst stages of my depression. My friends couldn't help me, my family couldn't help me. I had to wait out the immediate problems in my life, using mass effect to do that. As I started feeling better, I needed mass effect less.

    Yup I can relate to this, things went a bit differently in my life but the end result was fairly similar, but things turned worse for me when I stopped gaming in the midst of a mega depression attack. While I was raiding in WoW at least I had a goal outside of work, which was what was grinding me down. So I game now, it's like I am giving my subconscious time to mull things over, and a light comes on, and it's time to sit down and think things through a bit more, and these time tend to be fairly productive in terms of clearing the mental funk, as opposed to sitting there and trying to ram things through when I'm in a bad way. I don't think it it a 'harmful' addiction if you are just giving yourself some breathing room, and you know when it's time to walk away to do other stuff.

    " ...As you get more depressed you retreat more into games, which doesn’t help, because it doesn’t actually solve the problem. It doesn’t help your depression, so your depression gets worse, so you play more games, so your depression gets worse, etc. It becomes a negative spiral.”"
    Actually when I was depressed I had SWKotOR to fall back on. That game got me back to normal levels of happiness. Maybe it is dependent on the game and how much problem solving you have to do? For reference, this was a 'what I thought was best' run.

    Just like alcohol, some use games for entertainment, some use it for escape.
    When you use either alcohol or games for escape, usually the problem becomes worse, because you are not dealing with it.

    Last edited 27/11/12 11:52 am

    I think that in my case, video games helped me cope, not just as a morphine, but as something that actually contributed to my recovery.

    After having a horrible day at school or what have you, video games gave me something to occupy myself while I was at home alone/would wake up after nightmares. They gave me a community - not the only community of course - that was completely unrelated to real life.

    They were multiple worlds I could escape to, calm down and then when I was ready/able to, return. And as noted above, I had goals/objectives/aims that could be achieved that gave me a motivation - even if that was something simple like playing a game of AoE3 on Hard.

    If I'm feeling deflated, playing games (especially shooters) is a great way to take my mind off what is bugging me. Having said that I don't really have 2-3 hours a day anymore to sink into playing (it's more like an hour a day tops) but when I do it's somewhat a reset switch because nothing matters other than focusing on playing as best as I can.

    Good article. I won't comment on the research, and I'm not familiar with it, but anecdotally I've seen it cut both ways.

    For me, gaming has usually helped me through depressive/stressful life events by providing a distraction. This means I spend less time ruminating on negative events. It also gave me something to do when I first moved to a new city and was lonely for about a year.

    I have also seen gaming exacerbate existing problems, usually whereby the individual withdraws into videogames. The gaming appears to become compulsive, and this results in worse outcomes like partners leaving them. I don't think the gaming causes this perse - the few cases I've seen have usually involved drug taking as well. My guess is that compulsive gaming was a symptom of depression that actually makes the depression worse.

    I don't suffer from depression in any shape or form, yet I still took inspiration from the way Shepard scraped every last ounce of his willpower and courage to get the job done. I can see how that kind of mentality would be helpful to someone suffering depression, whether it be diagnosed or only temporary.

    This was in reply to That Teemo

    Last edited 27/11/12 12:47 pm

    For me, I would get more depressed as I became less productive while gaming. In fact, when I had time off and I started gaming after being productive, I'd generally find myself feeling terrible after a day or two.
    Recently I had such a bad breakup that I could barely move for a few weeks and I stopped gaming altogether. These days the only thing I play is Advance Wars on DS and even that has dropped off.
    For me, not gaming has forced me to find productive things to do with my time and I am happier for it. I still love games but I find they aren't a good influence on my mood.
    Thank you for the article.

    To those saying they found gaming helped them, the article addressed that, as with practically anything related to mental health, different things affect different people differently. I have to say I envy that, I tend to use gaming as an escape, that's certainly not the only reason I game, but its there. the problem with hopelessness is for people who are there, convincing them matters are otherwise is completely contrary to what they've solidified as fact. tough problem without easy answer.

    great article by the way.

    As someone with Schizoaffective disorder, gaming helps me so much. I can get stuff done that is a part of normal life, but a good sit down with Skyrim when I feel stressed is like a balm for my wounds. When my disability goes through a rough stage, and I find it hard to read or work, video games give me something to do, and something to work towards.

    When I was very depressed, games made the aching passage of time move a bit faster. I felt awful, but gaming distracted me from rumination.

    Personally, as someone with a severe mental illness, video games have been a huge part of helping me to manage stresses and the ins and outs of day to day life.

    Great article.

    Thanks for sharing, Phil (and everyone else).

    This article has come at an interesting time for me. I've had a pretty terrible year, and I was beginning to wonder if my own ventures into SWTOR were simply a distraction or something more. I've always played video games fairly regularly, so I wouldn't say my gaming activity has increased too much, but I still worried about it a bit.

    I think, like Phil, it is a distraction. Though my state of mind is almost certainly not as dire as Phil's, I could definitely find more productive ways to deal with my emotions.


    I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and am now on antideressants

    I wouldn't say I was depressed, but for me personally gaming is escape

    My mind is always racing, I am constantly overthinking everything, and It's like my head is filled with a million different voices

    Playing games kind of forces my brain to concentrate in ways that other things can't

    Besides games make me HAPPY and I ENJOY PLAYING THEM :)

    There are some physiological benefits of going outside and getting a little bit of excercise.

    If you avoid getting daily sunlight and having minimal excercise, the lack of endorphins can make you easily depressed. Its possible to be a heavy gamer and not get depressed, it just means that you have to respect your body too.

    For example, when you wake up in the morning, the sunlight that hits your eyes helps breakdown Melatonin (sleep hormone) in the brain. But if it isn't broken down rapidly enough, it can lead into feeling of 'feeling blue' and further problems. (Hence 'winter blues' is a common complaint in many people)

    Also, some online games have many 'toxic' players, and playing with them longterm can lead to strong feelings of anxiety and hopelessness, which can rapidly lead to early signs of Depression. So it is also important to avoid these people if you are feeling susceptible.

    I.e. there are many simple stuff that you can do to 'maintain your sanity' if you really want to be a heavy gamer.

    I've had depression going on 12 yrs now (I'm currently 22) and I've been gaming all my life
    looking back over the years there are few joyful memories and of those most feature games in some way, I hate to think of where I might be if I didn't have those few bright moments to guide me through. Release days were like lighthouses to me, some bright point off in the distance if only I could make it that far.
    Well I'm doing a lot better now after seeking professional help, and don't play games for therapy anymore, I play for fun, It's a different experience :)

      Right with you there. Been in the same situation, although I've had to drop therapy for financial reasons. As much as my avid gaming is probably making my social issues worse, at least it helps keep me at ease the rest of the time.

    As a student studying psychology, hard evidence has been found to link depression with those who receive inadequate vitamin D (the sun). It is plausible to suggest as individuals reside inside for extended periods of time, it is a lack of vitamin D which causes depression. I don't think video games are to blame for depression but rather the lack of exercise, lack of time spent in the sun and poor social lives video game addiction brings that is the cause.

      That's only one possible cause though and not a full solution. Depression is often due to chemical imbalances yes (Most often it's related to serotonin re-uptake), but not always, and there's no silver bullet. It's why you usually end up going through a gamut of drug trials to try and find which anti-depressant works the best for you and you usually have to stay on them for most of your life along with therapy sessions to improve your cognitive behaviour. Sometimes though, it really is as simple as doing some exercise or getting some fresh air because being inactive for extended periods can contribute to feelings of depression, or negative thought patterns.

      Last edited 27/11/12 8:34 pm

      Funny you should say that. I have depression, and coincidentally don't spend much time outside at all; In fact I try to avoid it, as being very fair skinned and prone to dehydration I've passed out, being sun burnt (I get sun burnt through the car window just driving for 5 mins) and had seizures so many times, it's in my best interest not to be outside. I guess I lose either way.

    I've got depression, I'm on anti depressants. Could it be linked to gaming? I'd certainly be open to any studies on it, that's for sure.

    I would definitely agree that my Gaming habits are a sort of morphine when it comes to dealing with harsh reality. From the way I'd see it, we'd all think ourselves crazy if we didn't take our minds off the most painful things in life.
    These studies simply show that gaming is a far more powerful, engrossing hobby than most. Unlike other medias like books or TV, games usually require strict mental attention to continue, thus we are distracted more so that we would be elsewhere.

    I'd definitely admit, my mental state would be far worse if I didn't have hobbies that I could focus on, such as reading and gaming. Honestly, I think gaming is more a relief to our mental states than anything else.

    Great article... Not really covered all that much across gaming sites but definitely a worthwhile endeavor, regardless of what one's opinion may be regarding the subject.

    I figured out my answers to those questions many years ago, but when you have depression, knowing an answer to your problem on its own is no good. It also doesn't help that the answer you arrive at one day is different the next. In my opinion it's a dangerous thing to be ascribing labels and stating that something is "bad" for you. When you're depressed, labels are a great thing to cling to as justification for everything you do wrong and knowing something you are doing is bad for you just increases the feelings of self loathing and "Why bother doing anything different?".

    Games, anime and manga have always been my way of getting through the darker days (and lighter!). I'm heavily into story based games because they offer a life other than my own and there's usually one or two epiphany points where I suddenly figure out something related to my current depression due to an event in what I'm playing.

    I didn't read the whole article, I couldn't.
    I have Depression, OCD and anxiety. If it weren't for video games, I may have had a break down. Game enabled me to cope for years until I was finally ready to get some help. It is not the best coping mechanism when you don't know how to use it properly.
    Now it is part of my treatment and my psychologist uses gaming to help me.
    I believe that each case is different for each person. Just like each mental illness is different from person to person, I believe the effect games have will also vary.

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