How gaming on the Oculus Quest can help people overcome depression
Millions of Oculus Quests were unwrapped on Christmas morning. Although many parents and loved ones bought these headsets as a fun portal into gaming, the Quest will have an additional and likely unintended effect on its users: improving mental health.
The Quest is different from an Xbox or PS4 because it facilitates immersion into new worlds. On traditional 2D platforms, gamers sit down and click buttons on a controller:
But the Oculus Quest is completely different — people stand up and move as they engage in virtual enviornments:
My research suggests that movement and engagement in immersive VR may boost positive mood and decrease negative mood. Over 400 patients reported changes in mood while playing games in VR. In a single-arm trial we asked them to rate their mood on a scale:
And we found that virtual reality games had an incredible effect on mood — every positive emotion increased significantly and nearly every negative emotion decreased significantly:
What’s incredible about this data is that in clinical psychology, we don’t have many tools to increase someone’s positive mood. There are different medications to reduce negative mood, such as antidepressants, anxiety medications, and mood stabilizers. But it’s much harder to induce a positive mood in someone. And now, millions of people have Quests in their homes that may be able to do just that.
And I’m particularly excited for how the Quest can be used to help people overcome depression, which many more people have experienced as a result of isolation in the pandemic, is something called behavioral activation. People with depression do not enjoy activities less — rather, they predict that they will enjoy activities less:
It turns out if people do things that produce a reward response (even simple tasks like making the bed or washing the dishes), it releases neurotransmitters that increase motivation to go do other pleasurable activities. Behavioral activation is a whole treatment designed to get people engaged in rewarding activities.
The Quest may be like a ‘life hack’ for behavioral activation. When someone puts on the headset and starts moving around, it may lead to the same release of neurotransmitters that can help them overcome depression. This could actually help someone overcome depression. It may also be a protective factor to help people avoid developing depression in the first place. More research is needed to fully determine the effects of immersive VR on depression, including randomized control trials.
Lastly, the Quest can also provide social connection in an immersive world. In Help Club, the mental health peer support platform of the metaverse, we recently hosted a Christmas event for folks who couldn’t go home due to the pandemic:
Instead of being alone at home they were able to leave their environments and socialize with others anonymously, including with one of our coaches trained in cognitive behavioral peer support. We’ve seen that this can not only improve mood but also break feelings of isolation that can worsen depression.
The Quest isn’t going to be a magical cure for everyone’s depression. People vary in how severe their depression is, and some need therapy. But for many folks who experience mild depression, the Quest could be a natural remedy that immerses them into a virtual world, produces motivation and translates into an improved mood in the real world.