Mental health hasn’t always been a mainstream topic. Fortunately, humans are always finding ways to expand our knowledge with new techniques to treat what ails us. Mobile games are an especially interesting way to cope with mental health illnesses and add an overall mood boost.
Some of the most frequently experienced and diagnosed mental health conditions among the public include depression, general anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. Globally, these conditions manifest in surprising numbers.
The World Health Organization estimates that 264 million individuals suffer from depression globally, plus 45 million from bipolar disorder and 20 million from various psychoses. A full 13% of global citizens, as of 2017, experienced a diagnosed mental or substance-abuse disorder.
Though it’s an emerging field of study, some researchers are convinced video games have a role to play in helping patients come to terms with their mental health conditions. According to those medical professionals, video games may have a positive influence on those struggling with mental health, provided some boundaries are in place first.
Stress relief is the first and most obvious positive effect. Players engaged in low-stakes problem-solving can exercise their brains and take their conscious minds off whatever factors are causing them distress.
Seeking solutions, solving problems, racking up achievements, and thinking through cause and effect are critical for developing brains and those struggling with mental health conditions like depression and anxiety.
Ultimately, working towards a goal or desired outcome, even if it’s “just” on a mobile phone or tablet screen, is an uplifting and mood-enhancing activity that may pay dividends for your mental health and state of mind. Even those in treatment for conditions like PTSD, ADHD, and trauma recovery have games available to aid in their recovery or wellness journey. Some games even help individuals develop or rebuild their social or caregiving skills—some of the first casualties during trying mental-health episodes.
Other benefits of video games for mental health, depending on the format of the game, include emotional resilience—learning to fail gracefully—and learning to cooperate with others. Engaging in sports and physical activities is often the first recommendation from care experts regarding mental health. But for those who struggle with mobility, video games provide a world of possibilities.
Simulation games provide rewarding experiences emphasizing strategy, visual acuity, cause-and-effect, and spatial awareness. Other times, they offer the satisfaction of observing or participating in a satisfying biological or mechanical process.
- Prune (iOS/Android): This visually striking and multi-award-winning game describes itself as a “love letter to trees.” It encourages users to tend to their tree, including shaping it and protecting it from harm. There are no microtransactions, and everything you do syncs to your devices.
- Pokémon Go (iOS/Android): This game was hard to ignore when released in 2016. Particularly, proponents of the app noted its benefit in getting players up and outdoors. Once there, they navigate to local landmarks and come as close to simulating the thrill of capturing live Pokémon as any of us will likely get.
- Pikmin Bloom (iOS/Android): Based on Pikmin—the charming Nintendo GameCube game—Pikmin Bloom is a Pokémon Go alternative focused on locomotion, mindfulness, and memory-making. As you walk around your environment, you find Pikmin to add to your squad, help flowers and trees grow, and even add photographs to a memory journal of your travels.
- Minecraft (iOS/Android): Is there anybody who hasn’t played or at least heard of Minecraft? This beloved free-form simulation game has players traversing calming but frequently challenging environments, managing resources, and building structures and mechanisms to their heart’s content.
While technology has brought us a long way from the days of jigsaw puzzles, puzzle games never go out of style. If you own a tablet or smartphone, there’s a dizzying array of brilliant and beautiful puzzle games to settle your mind and flex your problem-solving muscles.
- Monument Valley (iOS/Android): Players have marveled at Monument Valley‘s gorgeous art style and calm-inducing but undeniably challenging puzzles for years. With just enough narrative to keep players intrigued with the mysteries of the game world, they’ll meticulously traverse fantastical castles and landscapes by manipulating elements in the environment.
- Windosill (iOS): Windosill, developed by Vectorpark, is a mood-boosting and memorable experience for players of all ages. In a dreamlike world, individuals are tasked with using physics, well-timed taps, and object manipulation to shepherd their toy car across the screen. Each stage rewards a playful spirit and thoughtful investigation.
- 2048 (iOS/Android): One part strategy game and one part puzzler, 2048 should prove interesting for anybody with a head for numbers. Players move numbered tiles across a 4×4 grid, combining tiles while seeking the magical number 2048. It’s deceptively simple—expect to be challenged and feel the rush of impending accomplishment as your maneuvers approach the desired sum.
- Stack (iOS/Android): Stack is a brilliantly simple game that punches above its weight in relaxation and satisfaction. Everything about it is meticulously designed, from the visuals to the delightful melodies that reward success. Players must stack simple shapes as high as they can—and try their hand at unseating other players from across the world.
Virtual caretaker games are almost limitless in their variation, though they all involve having players cultivate environments and develop care routines for digital pets. This kind of stewardship can stimulate parts of the brain concerned with regulating relationships and developing care skills—whether for oneself or others.
- Rakko Ukabe (iOS/Android): Have you ever wanted to care for a group of sea otters? This is your chance! Use a combination of irresistible morsels, furniture, and toys to encourage new otters to join your community. They’ll either gather or disperse again, depending on your level of care.
- Neko Atsume: Kitty Collector (iOS/Android): Sea otters not your jam? With Neko Atsume, you can become a caretaker to numerous kitty cats, each with its own personality and quirks. Try out new combinations of treats and playtime toys across various environments to encourage more cats to join and interact with your environment.
- Finch (iOS/Android): Finch is much more than your typical caretaker game. After naming your digital pet and decking it out with cool outfits and accessories, your caregiving routine doubles as a self-care reflection bullet journal. Bullet journaling is a popular way to record and process thoughts and emotions. The care you give to your pet can mirror your daily mood and actively encourages you to get in touch with the root of your moods and headspace.
- Viridi (iOS/Android): Developed by Ice Water Games, Viridi is an environment- and plant-growth simulator that puts your green thumb to the test. Your menagerie will constantly grow in your absence—and you’ll be able to prune them, care for them, and add selections each Friday as the developers add new free plants to choose from.
Sometimes, all you need to boost your mood or get back in touch with your inner dialogue or physical capabilities is to engage in focused training or playtime. The following games provide endless canvases to exercise your mental fortitude and reaction time.
- Alto’s Adventure (iOS/Android): You can’t argue with 10+ million downloads and counting. Alto’s Adventure sees players traverse beautifully rendered wilderness and wintertime landscapes atop their snowboard. Rewarding, reaction-boosting gameplay and reflections on the gentle passing of time give this game real staying power. In 2016, the developers even added a zen mode, where players can pick back up immediately after a fall rather than starting over to make the game even more serene.
- Crossy Road (iOS/Android): Do you still have the high score on the Frogger machine in your local pizzeria? If you love that kind of archetypal gameplay, then Crossy Road is definitely for you. Each addictive stage provides new window dressing and challenges as you navigate various characters ranging from the Dinosaur Chicken to the Emo Goose across each visually rich environment.
- Doodle Jump (iOS/Android): Doodle Jump is a perennial genre favorite. With a distinctive art style and twitch-based but deeply satisfying gameplay, players will quickly be hooked on challenging themselves to jump ever higher.
Some games are more explicitly about cultivating a healthier mental headspace than others. If you’re experiencing anxiety about the present or worries concerning the future, this might be the genre for you.
- My Oasis (iOS/Android): There’s no pay-to-win here, nor any twitchy or time-sensitive gameplay. My Oasis is about one thing: cultivating a more peaceful mindset while enjoying the beautiful scenery, affirmation-chanting animals, and atmospheric, mood-lifting music. You’ll quickly lose yourself in this game—along with your distracting anxieties.
- Uzu, An Interactive Light Show (iOS): Award-winning and at one time the #1 best-selling app on the App Store, Uzu is unique among mindfulness and mood-enhancing games. It’s highly visual in nature, with players using various tools and taps to create dazzling, physics-heavy light shows in real-time. You can even export the sequences and stills you love as videos or wallpapers.
- Breath of Light (iOS): This game gives players deceptively simple space- and movement-based environmental problems to solve while doubling as a guided meditation experience. Distinctive imagery and mellifluous melodies complete the game, which reviewers regularly hail as the “gold standard” for mental health meeting rewarding gameplay.