Every American knows that Veterans die by suicide at a staggering rate. We also know that veterans, as well as others, suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But did you know that gaming can help with PTSD and other mental health challenges?
Before we start, it is important to remember that what helps one person may not help another in the slightest, and people will have individual experiences. I also am not suggesting that video games alone will solve all of someone’s mental health challenges. What I am suggesting is that research shows that video games may support recovery.
There are many factors that lead to our service women and men developing PTSD. First, long deployments can cause stress, and knowing there are stressors at home can further compound that stress. Both military sexual trauma and military combat trauma are significant risk factors (Sexton, Raggio, McSweeney, Authier, & Rauch, 2017). Additionally, substance abuse is more prevalent among veterans with PTSD (Forkus, Breines, & Weiss, 2020). And, unfortunately, studies also indicate that veterans with PTSD have an elevated risk of death by suicide (Forehand, Peltzman, Westgate, Riblet, Watts, & Shiner, 2019).
So how does gaming come into play? Well, let’s start with something simple, like Tetris. Studies have shown that playing Tetris may actually decrease PTSD symptoms. Now, let’s jump into science. The hippocampus is a brain structure located deep in the temporal lobe. The hippocampus has a major role in learning and memory. Stress can cause a decrease in the hippocampal volume, which is also seen with PTSD. So, what does playing Tetris do? Studies have shown that playing Tetris reduces intrusive memories (Butler, Herr, Willmund, Gallinat, Kuhn, & Zimmerman, 2020). Butler et al. (2020) also found that playing Tetris results in an increase in hippocampal volume which further results in a reduction of symptoms related to PTSD, anxiety, and depression.
Gaming is also a form of self-distraction that can provide veterans with a social network and even uplift their mood. There are organizations out there that are using research about PTSD and creating an environment for veterans. One organization is Stack Up. Their tagline is: “Veterans are our mission, gaming is our passion.” Their founder and many of their staff are veterans. According to their website, they have multiple programs, including sending gaming care packages to forward-deployed service members and veterans, to local engagements, to 24/7 crisis support.
Another veteran gaming community is Regiment Gaming. Their website states, “Our focus is overcoming issues that service members and veterans face. Cut from the same cloth, we will ensure that no one is left to feel alone, deserted, or weak.” Organizations like Stack Up and Regiment Gaming are great places for veterans to be able to connect with other people who are dealing with some of the same struggles while engaging the brain and even increasing the hippocampal volume.
What about first-person shooters, you ask? Well, let’s dive into that. Some might argue that FPS games can be triggering, and that might be true for some people. As a matter of fact, some people will tell you that FPS games are bad and will result in people doing bad things in real life. But is that what the research shows us? A study published in 2018 found that people who played FPS games ended up having less grey matter in their hippocampus unless it was played on a 3D platform (West, Konishi, Diarra, Benady-Chorney, Drisdelle, Dahmani, Sodums, Lepore, Jolicoeur, & Bohbot, 2018).
Other studies indicate that playing FPS titles can improve cognitive functions such as attention, visual short-term memory, spatial cognition, and even decision-making, planning, social organization, and communication. Think about it, if you want to be successful as a team in an FPS, you need to communicate, have a plan, and execute that plan. This can create an escape, an opportunity for relationship building, and the ability to improve cognitive function.
In their article in 2015, Elliot, Golub, Price, and Bennett likened FPS games to Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy (VRET). “Exposure therapy seeks to help decrease the intensity of the stress responses you might have to situations, thoughts, or memories which provoke anxiety or fear” (BrainLine, 2021). FPS games may have this same response, according to some researchers, especially considering that current combat VRETs are adapted from FPS games (Elliot, Golub, Price, & Bennet, 2015). One striking difference is that VRET is a therapy that is done in a controlled environment under the care of a licensed mental health professional. More studies would need to be done to see how playing an FPS in an unsupervised, uncontrolled environment impacts veterans with PTSD.
In closing, research has identified that there are benefits to gaming for veterans suffering from PTSD. There is also still a lot of research that needs to be done. One thing we can say for sure is that everyone reading this, whether part of a veteran gaming group or not, has the potential to create an environment and community that benefits veterans (and everyone else playing, for that matter). On the flip side, you have the potential to create a negative and toxic gaming environment that leads to worsening anxiety, depression, and PTSD symptoms. The decision is yours. If we can all just be good people, we will all help each other out immensely.
If you are experiencing a crisis or are having thoughts of suicide, know that you are not alone. Contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. Veterans can dial 988 and then press 1.
BrainLine. (2021). Virtual reality exposure therapy (VRET). BrainLine. Retrieved from https://www.brainline.org/treatment-hub/virtual-reality-exposure-therapy-vret
Butler, O., Herr, K., Willmund, G., Gallinat, J., Kühn, S., & Zimmermann, P. (2020). Trauma, treatment and Tetris: Video gaming increases hippocampal volume in male patients with combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, 45(4), 279-287. DOI: 10.1503/jpn.190027
Forehand, J. A., Peltzman, T., Westgate, C. L., Riblet, N. B., Watts, B. V., & Shiner, B. (2019). Causes of excess mortality in veterans treated for posttraumatic stress disorder. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 57(2), 145-152.
Forkus, S. R., Breines, J. G., & Weiss, N. H. (2020). PTSD and alcohol misuse: Examining the mediating role of fear of self-compassion among military veterans. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(4), 364–372. https://doi.org/10.1037/tra0000481
Sexton, M. B., Raggio, G. A., McSweeney, L. B., Authier, C. C., & Rauch, S. A. M. (2017). Contrasting gender and combat versus military sexual traumas: Psychiatric symptom severity and morbidities in treatment-seeking veterans. Journal of Women’s Health, 26(9), 933-940. doi: 10.1089/jwh.2016.6080
West, G. L., Konishi, K., Diarra, M., Benady-Chorney, J., Drisdelle, B. L., Dahmani, L., Sodums, D. J., Lepore, F., Jolicoeur, P., & Bohbot, V. D. (2018). Impact of video games on plasticity of the hippocampus. Molecular Psychiatry, 23(2018), 1566-1574.