Amid Talk of Violent Influence, Video Games as Therapy Often Goes Unnoticed

For decades, the industry has been pointed to as a scapegoat for real-world crimes, but its potential to heal rarely gets the same attention.
'Abz├╗'   |   Courtesy of Giant Squid Studios
For decades, the industry has been pointed to as a scapegoat for real-world crimes, but its potential to heal rarely gets the same attention.

Hot tea, essential oils, Xanax … video games? One of these things may seem out of place, but while many of the most popular games and genres are fueled by imagery that critics (including the Trump administration) allege contributes to real-life violence and aggression, a massive catalog of nonviolent, relaxing alternatives has developed in their shadow. 

While it is true that most best-selling AAA titles in the gaming industry feature violence as a primary component of gameplay (this year's top-selling games include Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 and Red Dead Redemption 2, M-rated offerings that don't shy away from carnage and mayhem), the success of smaller independent games like Celeste and Donut County that don't accentuate bloodshed has not received the same attention. If one accepts the argument that playing violent video games translates to real-world sadism, would the opposite also be true, then?  

Given the interactive nature of the medium, playing video games can often be a therapeutic experience. In a simulated environment, games offer a sense of control to the user — literally. While many games present a stiff challenge (Celeste, particularly) many others exist as a sandbox the player can explore through their own autonomy. 

With the introduction of the Switch (first released in March 2017), Nintendo has created a device that allows gamers to bring their games with them wherever they go. Knowing that a situation may become stressful, the knowledge that an escape or dose of relief is within reach can be a comforting thought all on its own. In fact, the console's reveal trailer emphasized this notion, showing gamers enjoying the Switch on airplanes, on public transit and other scenarios where lack of control is built in.   

Originally released in 2016 for the PlayStation 4, 505 Games and Giant Squid Studios' underwater adventure Abzû has now been ported to the Nintendo Switch. The game lets the player control a diver as they explore the beautifully rendered seascape and ancient ruins of a mysterious world. Unlike more traditional games, Abzû does not require the player to combat enemies or engage in any violent activity. At the same time, it is not a passive experience. The emphasis of the gameplay is on exploration and uncovering the secrets of a new environment in their own time and, largely, on their own terms.  

"I wanted to make this game about appreciating the ocean and respecting it and the beauty of it," Matt Nava, creative director of Abzû, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It didn’t make sense to kill everything in sight to pursue that goal."

Abzû is hardly the only game of its type. Titles like 2009's Flower, 2012's Journey and last year's Rime all invoke tranquil feelings and have received critical praise. Each title presents the beauty of the worlds they have created to the player and invites them to ground themselves in a virtual environment, shutting out the real world for however long they are engaged in the game.

Nava, who also served as art director on Journey and Flower, admits that, despite his prior success, selling Abzû as a nonviolent exploration game was a difficult task. "When we pitched the game, some studios didn’t understand. They said, 'Maybe you can add a speargun or something?'" Nava says.

Meanwhile, studies have been conducted to explore the effects video games may have on helping those who suffer from PTSD. One such paper, published in Molecular Psychiatry last year, found that more than half of patients examined who were suffering from post-traumatic stress experienced far fewer intrusive thoughts while playing the nonviolent game Tetris than those who did not play the game.

Even games with gameplay mechanics that encourage killing often explore the ramifications of such actions. Red Dead Redemption 2, while centered on a murderous outlaw in the year 1899, handles its mature themes in a deft way, presenting the player with the moral consequences of their choices. Last year's Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice featured graphic violence but explored mental health as its central theme, with the development team at Ninja Theory consulting and working with neuroscientists, mental health professionals and individuals diagnosed with psychosis. Games like 2005's Shadow of the Colossus, in which players hunt down and slay towering ancient creatures, flip the hero's quest and force the user to answer for their brutality. 

A study conducted earlier this year by the University of York in England explored the notion of "priming" — the idea that exposing individuals to concepts in media makes those concepts easier to use in real life — that is often discussed in relation to video games. By presenting subjects with a war game that exhibited both realistic and unrealistic depictions of soldier behavior and then testing for violent word associations no evidence was found to support the notion that priming influenced the players' reactions.

Dr. David Zendle, lecturer in computer science at York St. John University who conducted the study, said the theory of video games as an influence on positive behavior and therapy is an area that is "very much understudied."

Zendle cites a study from 2002 out of Iowa State University entitled "Violent Video Games and Hostile Expectations: A Test of the General Aggression Model" as a major influential force on how video games are viewed today, particularly in academic studies. "That set the tone for the debate for the last nearly 20 years. People have taken that model and twisted it a bit to say, maybe we can generalize this...it's only now that all these results based on priming are being really deeply challenged."

However, a conflicting meta-analysis study from Dartmouth College published in October found that violent games do influence aggressive, violent behavior in children between the ages of 9 and 19. 

"It’s not just a game, it’s a virtual world," Dr. Jay Hull, Dartmouth professor of psychological and brain sciences and associate dean of faculty for the social sciences who conducted the study, tells THR. "When you inhabit a game world, you become a particular type of person, and if they warp your sense of right and wrong you can come back to the real world with a different sense of what's acceptable behavior."

Hull's study had subjects play popular games such as Grand Theft Auto and Marvel's Spider-Man. Hull argues that there is a difference between games where real-world morality is applied or in which the player controls a heroic character (such as in Spider-Man) and games that put player in control of "noxious" avatars, as in the Grand Theft Auto franchise and 2003's Manhunt (also used in the study).

“If you’re playing a game in which you’re a good person, you can show good effects," Hull says. "That’s the theoretical take that we have."

For Nava, he seems content that his creations have helped fans deal with their own anxieties. "People have written to us that Abzû has helped them through periods of depression and anxiety," he said. "Those messages help you realize that it's not just a game, it's an experience that helps and moves people."