Combat Depression with Games: A Look at the Top Games for Mental Wellness


There has been a growing interest in using games to support those struggling with depression.

With depression affecting millions worldwide, alternative methods are becoming increasingly popular for those seeking to manage their symptoms. Enter video games designed to combat depression, as explored by the JMIR Serious Games journal. According to their report examining commercial video games’ effects on mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, playing them can be particularly helpful for those lacking access to traditional treatments due to cost or location barriers. Furthermore, video games can provide a sense of community, crucial for maintaining good mental health, particularly for those experiencing social isolation and loneliness.

In light of these findings, let’s explore some of the top games that are helping individuals fight depression and promoting overall mental wellness.

Animal Crossing: An escape to a relaxing island life

Image courtesy of Animal Crossing

In 2020, the University of Oxford conducted a study that found certain types of video games, particularly relaxing ones like Animal Crossing, can act as stress relievers and aid players in coping with stress. According to Andrew Przybylski, the lead researcher, individuals who play Animal Crossing for four hours daily report higher happiness levels.

In Animal Crossing, players can design their own island getaway and interact with cute, humanoid animals. It incorporates features like interior decoration, crafting and fishing, encouraging players to discover and appreciate a variety of activities. Players have found the game to be therapeutic, offering an escape from the stresses of the pandemic and a chance to relax on their own idyllic island.

Mental health experts recommend playing the game because of its calming activities and open narrative, which are similar to mindfulness practices that promote relaxation and stress reduction. By immersing themselves in the game, players can experience a sense of tranquility and respite from the pandemic’s stressful circumstances.

Mahjong: An ancient game with modern mental health benefits

Image courtesy of Pexels

Playing Mahjong, an ancient Chinese tile-based game, has been found to have a positive impact on the mental health of middle-aged and older adults by potentially reducing depression rates, according to a study published in the Social Science & Medicine journal.

Mahjong involves a combination of skill, luck and strategy, played by four players with a set of 144 tiles. Each player has to get their 14 tiles into four sets of tile combinations, which can include three identical tiles or three consecutive numbers, as well as a pair of identical tiles.

Playing Mahjong may have potential mental health benefits that can be attributed to the social and cognitive aspects of the game. As a social activity, the game provides opportunities for social interaction, which can promote a sense of belonging and improve mental well-being. The game’s cognitive demands also offer a mental workout, improving focus and problem-solving skills. Mahjong enthusiasts often form long-lasting relationships with their playing partners, which further contributes to their mental health benefits. In the age of COVID-19, online Mahjong has become an important way for committed players to maintain their social connections. 

SPARX: A game for young people struggling with depression

Image courtesy of SPARX

For young people struggling with depression, traditional treatments such as medication and counseling may not always be effective or accessible. That’s why the University of Auckland and Metia Interactive developed SPARX (Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor thoughts), a creative and empowering game that teaches young people valuable skills to manage and overcome their condition.

In SPARX, players create their own avatars and battle against negative thoughts and emotions in a fantasy world. By completing the game’s seven levels, players gain a sense of empowerment and learn effective strategies, such as problem-solving and controlled breathing, that can help them overcome depression.

According to research trials, SPARX has shown to be as effective as traditional treatments, such as medication and counseling, for 12- to 19-year-olds in New Zealand who seek assistance for depression. By providing a more accessible and engaging alternative to conventional treatments, SPARX could help more young people get the care they need to overcome depression.

Sym: A game about social anxiety and shyness

Image courtesy of Sym

Created by Italian developers Sebastiano Morando and Francesco Lanciai, Sym is a groundbreaking 2D puzzle platformer game that addresses the topic of social anxiety and shyness. The game follows the story of Joshua, a dark entity that can walk on black platforms or sink into the ground and traverse upside-down. As players enter the upside-down world, the background music becomes muted, underscoring the contrast between Joshua’s distinct personalities. 

The main objective of Sym is to guide Josh through this world, which he has constructed to avoid facing the real world that triggers his anxiety. The game also includes a level editor feature for players to create their own levels and connect with the community.

Sym depicts the dual existence of those with social anxiety, experiencing an internal world and the external reality. According to Lanciai, Sym is about the division between reality and our perception of it, as represented by the contrasting elements of black and white and feelings of fear and safety. In another interview, Morando also mentioned that the world of Sym draws from Yin and Yang, with black signifying a desire to overcome problems and white representing withdrawal. The protagonist aims to balance these sides and connect with others.

Video games as a supplement to depression treatment

Depression is a serious mental illness that requires appropriate treatment and support from trained professionals. While video games should not be viewed as a substitute for such care, incorporating them into a broader treatment plan, along with therapy and medication, may aid in coping with depression and promoting mental wellness. By providing a sense of accomplishment, relaxation, and community, video games can help individuals cope with depression symptoms and improve overall well-being. For more on the topic, check out our article on cozy gaming to explore more games that can help you relieve stress and unwind.

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