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Study: 3D Video Games Help Improve Major Depressive Disorder Symptoms

There are plenty of studies exploring how substances like cannabis and psilocybin can help treat depression, but far fewer research exploring how video games can positively treat that kind of condition. Recently in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany found that people suffering from Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) saw a reduction in symptoms after a 3D video game (in this case, participants playing Super Mario Odyssey a game that release on Nintendo Switch in 2017). It’s the first randomized controlled study of its kind to examine the effects of a six-week video game intervention on those with depression.

Researchers explained that people with MDD often experience “reduced affect, mood, and cognitive impairments such as memory problems,” but most treatments do not target the cognitive deficits, which is why they believed that video games could help. “Playing 3D video games has been found to improve cognitive functioning in healthy people, but it is not clear how they may affect depressed mood and motivation in people with MDD,” researchers wrote. “The aim of this study was to investigate whether a six-week video game intervention leads to improvements in depressed mood, training motivation, and visuo-spatial (working) memory functions in patients with MDD.”

Forty-six clinically depressed people were split into three groups: 1.) the experimental “3D video gaming” group, an active control group who trained with a computer program called COGPACK (which is a cognitive remediation program), and 3.) a group that received typical treatment methods such as psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy. All participants were asked to perform a neuropsychological assessment, such as self-reporting questions.

The reason Super Mario Odyssey was chosen was in part because of a previous study from 2015 identified benefits of 3D-based games (the study used “Super Mario World” as an example) “can promote hippocampal plasticity, which consequently led to an enhancement in hippocampus associated cognitive functions, such as visuo-spatial memory” in comparison to a 2D game (the example was Angry Birds).

The results of the most recent study showed that there was a significant decrease in depressive symptoms. “Results indicate that after six weeks of training the 3D video gaming group showed a significant decrease in the proportion of participants with clinically significant levels of depressive symptoms by self-report and a higher mean training motivation when compared with the active control group,” researchers wrote in their conclusion. “Furthermore, results suggest significant improvements in tasks of visuo-spatial (working) memory performance during post-testing in both training groups, however, the 3D video gaming group demonstrates more selective improvements and does not perform significantly better than the other two groups.”

As of September 2023, Super Mario Odyssey is one of the highest selling Nintendo Switch games of all time, placed in fifth place on a list of games in units. In first place is Mario Kart 8 (57.01 million units), second is Animal Crossing: New Horizons (43.38 million units), third is Super Smash Brothers Ultimate (32.44 million units), The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (31.15 million units), and finally Super Mario Odyssey (26.95 million units).

We’ve also seen a steady increase in studies relating to treating various depression conditions with psychedelic substances. Medical cannabis studies continue to showcase the benefits on a variety of conditions. In November an Australian study reported the benefits of medical cannabis that improved patients’ quality of life, as well as reduced pain, anxiety, and depression.

Psilocybin was found to be a promising treatment for people with depression in a September study conducted by the American Medical Association. Earlier in December, another study found that patients with bipolar II depression benefited from using psilocybin as a treatment. 

Other studies have evaluated the effects of DMT for depression too, such as one that was conducted by a United Kingdom pharmaceutical company in January 2023. Researchers said that DMT offered “a significant antidepressant effect that was rapid and durable.”

Ketamine is also being studied as a possibility for treating severe depression, as seen in a June 2023 research initiative. ECT has been the gold standard for treating severe depression for over 80 years,” researchers explained. “But it is also a controversial treatment because it can cause memory loss, requires anesthesia, and is associated with social stigma. This is the largest study comparing ketamine and ECT treatments for depression that has ever been done, and the only one that also measured impacts to memory.”

There’s a lot of potential to be studied between these substances and depression, as well as many other conditions. And with the newest research putting the spotlight on 3D video games as a method of treating depression as well, it will be very interesting to see how these two separate methods of treatment continue to evolve, or even possibly overlap.

Super Mario titles have always represented the more wholesome side of video games. Maybe all Mario games have the potential to treat depression because of this, or maybe some Super Mario games are more likely than others to offer cognitive benefits to players. While we eagerly await more studies on these topics, check out our review of Super Mario Bros. Wonder which offers a delightful journey into the strange and hilarious unknown.

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