Oct 11, 2022

Treating Youth Anxiety Through Gaming with Dr. Isabela Granic, Dr. Hanneke Scholten, and Ken Koontz (podcast)

Hear how playing MindLight, a video game controlled by neurofeedback, can be as effective as traditional talk therapy in helping kids manage and overcome anxiety symptoms.

By Templeton Staff

Youth anxiety is a pressing global mental health concern. "It affects social relationships, parental relationships, academic functioning, and predicts everything from incarceration to career development, future wellbeing and physical health," says developmental psychologist Dr. Isabela Granic at McMaster University. Despite commonly held negative perceptions, Granic's research has instead shown that video games and gaming can offer many cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social benefits. 

Granic leads a team of social scientists, researchers, and video game designers at the Games for Emotional and Mental Health (GEMH) Lab in researching and developing video games to treat and prevent emotional and mental health issues in young people, aged 8 to 24 years old. "The skills that we learn through play — being resilient, being able to persevere in the face of failure — are related to having good mental health and flourishing," notes Granic's co-director at GEMH, Dr. Hanneke Scholten. In this episode of the TWCF-supported Stories of Impact podcast, you'll hear how MindLight, a GEMH-developed video game controlled by neurofeedback, can be as effective as traditional talk therapy for helping youth manage and overcome symptoms of anxiety.

Listen in to hear Dr. Granic and key members of the GEMH team address misconceptions about video games and what gaming can do for mental health. The team also shares how the games and apps they create and study help build social connection, a sense of belonging, emotional competence, and resilience, as well as agency.

Key takeaways from this episode:

  • In her studies, Granic found that only about 40 to 60% of children experienced improvement through conventional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) approaches to treating chronic anxiety. Frustrated with this statistic, Granic began to wonder if its cause could be lack of engagement. With traditional CBT, "the delivery model is boring. Young people are asked to either sit in a classroom, a group therapy, or in a clinical sort of context."
  • Granic's breakthrough scientific exploration into video games was inspired when she observed how her own children played at home. "These video games were taking in the intrinsic joy of play — play which has been evolutionarily essential for human development — and they were putting it into a digital format, but still sort of galvanizing the same kind of emotional struggles and the social connections and so on in a video game context. At the end of the game, I brought my children in who were seven years old, and they just watched with this awe. It was just a beautiful 'aha experience' where art and science met." 
  • MindLight incorporates relaxation and mindfulness techniques, attention bias modification methods, and neurofeedback mechanics into an interactive, immersive story. As GEMH Lab designer Ken Koontz shares, storytelling and role-playing transforms the experience "from being a passive media to an interactive media, where now I can, as a child, or as a player, take part in the story that I’m consuming." With games like this, Granic says, "we can deliver the same kinds of training programs, the same kind of skill-building exercises and practice [as CBT] but in a context, that is fun, that delights young people. And most important maybe is, it’s in a context that’s most relevant to children and teenagers."
  • GEMH Lab invited kids who have symptoms of anxiety to participate in a study to measure the impact of storytelling and role-playing games like MindLight vs. traditional CBT on anxiety symptoms. Scholten shares, "What we saw — and we replicated this four times — is that the MindLight group did as well as the kids who got talk therapy, which is our gold standard, if we try to treat anxiety among young children."

Listen to the podcast with the above player.

Watch the video related to this episode.

Learn more about TWCF-funded research project related to this episode.

This podcast episode has won the Award of Excellence in the 29th Annual Communicator Awards in Individual Episodes: Science and Medicine category.

Read the transcript from the interview conducted by journalist Richard Sergay, presented by podcast producer, host, and writer, Tavia Gilbert.

Built upon the award-winning video series of the same name, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” podcast features stories of new scientific research on human flourishing that translate discoveries into practical tools. Bringing a mix of curiosity, compassion, and creativity, journalist Richard Sergay and producer Tavia Gilbert shine a spotlight on the human impact at the heart of cutting-edge social and scientific research projects supported by TWCF.