Dice thrown in mid-air with poker chips and other game pieces.

3 types of games to fight depression and loneliness

Gaming can't cure everything, but it can improve mental well-being

If you're trying to take your mental health more seriously and recognize the value and need to interact with other people, meet new friends, and engage with the world, there are types of games that can help:

  1. Rich, interactive online games designed to keep you playing. These won't help your mental health.
  2. Simple, non-repetitive, mobile games to dip in and out of. These can improve your outlook in moderation.
  3. Social tabletop and in-person games. These are the best kinds of games to reduce social anxiety and depression.
But before we get to those, first, we need to understand the engineering behind games.

Playing video games doesn't work well to fight mental illness

Video games that create immersive storylines in a beautiful fantasy world have a distinct difference from most computer games: they're engineered to keep you playing.

Not unlike social media feeds designed to keep people watching, scrolling, or consuming material, video games designed for most consoles and PCs can induce too much gaming. You may experience this if you lose track of time or find yourself foregoing real-world interaction to play.

The engineering behind these games is easy to identify. A game developer seeking to maximize gameplay can introduce gambling mechanics, random prizes or rewards, quests that reveal hidden objects or features, and side quests which play on our human desire to "check things off" and be completionists. All of these features release dopamine, which while enjoyable in the short term, becomes addictive in the long term.

Game addiction that evolves into a more serious form of mental illness can result in a loss of friends, a sense of worthlessness or value tied only to a consumerist endpoint, loss of social confidence, social anxiety, depression, and everyday struggles to eat well, sleep, or just enjoy life.

Playing video games, however, like many activities, can be an enjoyable way to relieve stress and spend an evening or rainy weekend passing time. But addiction is possible and a depressed person can overcome emotional obstacles by changing the kinds of games they play.

Addictive game mechanics are relatively new. Consider early video games like Super Mario Brothers. Many millennials and Gen Xers probably can't remember how many hours of childhood were spent playing in Mario World. But it also likely wasn’t 7-8 hours a day.

The Mario games had character stories that were engaging, but not deep. "Rescue the Princess from Bowser" is relatively simple in levels that were always identical when played again compared to the storyline of a game like Dark Souls, with its purposefully challenging mechanics, role-playing, and online community, or Animal Crossing, with its never-ending sense of escape in its own world. In retrospect, Mario just wasn’t the kind of game you could or wanted to play for 8 hours straight.

Mental health issues impact many of us — but the right kinds of games can help

Gamers with depressive symptoms may get a sense of community from video games, but the kind of community related to online games is a poor simulacrum for real friends. Many people may meet their online friends from time to time, but these events are rare. Most people most of the time never engage outside a screen. These games mask the complex emotions necessary for humans to experience in life that improves our mental health.

Games that promote balance, in-person interaction, and the ability to share snacks or drinks can help any gamer struggling with depression. Here are some great ideas:

Dungeons and Dragons

One of the most popular tabletop games in the world outside of Monopoly (also a great game and a useful educational tool), Dungeons and Dragons inspires thousands of players worldwide to meet new people and escape their simulated digital worlds for reality.

There's probably a D&D group near you that meets regularly in public places that are safe, welcoming, and fun. If you find a place and don't feel like you clicked immediately, give it a few tries. We know that it takes about 90 days for people to feel connected in a new city, and about 2 weeks of consistently showing up at the same club, group, gym, or activity for people to feel part of a group. Give it time!

Magic the Gathering

Some argue games like D&D and Magic the Gathering are in the same vein as Warhammer or World of Warcraft, but they're nothing alike when comparing computer games to tabletop game mechanics. Tabletop games like Magic the Gathering by definition require people to talk, strategize, and win or lose together or as part of factions. It's a simulation of real life through tabletop character storylines, but it's related to real-life mechanics in a way that video games are designed not to reinforce.

Online and mobile games that don't reward addictive gambling behaviors are also helpful

Games that enable you to momentarily shift focus from your current state without requiring hours of gameplay can also be helpful. Like these:

Play Bunco

Dice games that lack negative-impact game mechanics (like gambling) or pay-to-play or pay-to-win purchases are genuinely fun in real life. Whether it's with family or friends, a social dice game like Bunco can help relieve anxiety and improve your self-confidence since it's designed to shuffle people around the room while you play. And, you can play online for free at playbunco.com, anytime.

Younger gamers may roll their eyes, but once you start rolling the dice — even if it's with kids you know — at a social or family game night, you will genuinely feel better. It's why group homes and facilities encourage people to play games like Bingo or dice games. They're easy, affordable, social, and even require a little dexterity (useful for older folks).

The social aspect of Bunco, which requires nothing more than a few sets of 6-sided dice, tables, and paper to keep score — is a low-key, easy-to-learn, and old-school way of dealing with depression and loneliness.

Card games like Uno

Card games that omit gambling (either real or fictional) can be a useful way to pass 20 or 30 minutes. Avoid Poker, Blackjack, or anything that gives the sense "One more time could be it."

Instead, play games like Uno, Gin Rummy, Bridge, or Euchre — many of which are fine mobile games you can pick up and put down since you're unlikely to spend a solid 5 hours playing one.

These are also great examples of in-person gaming where you can share in conversation, interact with people, eat, drink, and before and after the game continue to get to know people. They have the added benefit of scaling up to include more people, too.

Mexican Train Dominoes

Domino games are another series that's helped millions of people around the world struggling with loneliness and boredom improve their mood and enjoy a little entertainment. One of our favorites is Mexican Train Dominoes precisely because it's such a social game requiring at least three or four players and is available online and in the iOS and Android App Store without any harmful game mechanics. The games themselves can be lengthy but are also designed not to require a person to spend all day playing.

You may find as you navigate ways to overcome depression you don't know where or how to play, or have no one to play with. Social science tells us there are other people you likely do know who would be up for a game, but need someone to take the initiative to host a game. And that's part of the journey since you can be the person who gets the benefits of ordering or making food, cleaning a space, and preparing the game. All of which will improve mental health.

It's important to remember when discussing mental health issues that if you feel completely lost, unable to deal or cope with day-to-day situations, or struggle with more severe social anxiety that prevents you from considering any life changes, consult a mental health professional for treatment or therapy. They can help you focus on simple, practical ways to overcome depression, anxiety, and improve your feelings and passion for gaming, playing with friends, and overall well-being.