Video Games, Flow & Happiness

by Chris S

Video games are an immensely popular form of entertainment and in recent years they have become increasingly interactive, social and immersive. Current research on video games focuses heavily on negative side effects, specifically aggression and violence. This focus on video games’ negative effects has led to a shortage of research on potential positive benefits. This paper attempts to reduce this imbalance through an exploration of video games’ ability to facilitate states of flow and other cognitive, social and creative benefits. This paper looks to recent quantitative research on video games and their effects, specifically with reference to happiness and subjective well-being, with an emphasis on the possibility of video games as a means of therapeutic intervention and promoting flourishing.   Though the research on the positive effects of video games is in its infancy there is a growing body of research which demonstrates that people who play video games in moderate amounts do indeed show many positive benefits. These include increased levels of happiness, confidence, pro-social behaviour, creativity and physiological effects on the brain that included improved vision, problem solving ability, and hand-eye coordination which further suggests that video games can create positive effects on the brain through neuroplasticity.


Video games have extreme promise in the future as a therapeutic tool. This line of reasoning has recently been expressed by Gratic, Lovel and Rutger who assert that video games overcome many “overarching limitations” surrounding traditional cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), making them an ideal tool to improve treatment for a large spectrum of disorders. Gratic et al. identity several areas which video games solve unique problems associated with CBT. First, most children find therapy boring, and getting a child to focus is a large challenge posed to clinicians. Video games are more immersive, and illicit a stronger emotional reaction than traditional CBT. By utilising video games to impart the same knowledge while exploiting their components of play and engaging game mechanics the process of therapy is easier and more enjoyable. A recent fantasy role-playing game was developed (SPARX) to treat depression, and was shown to be as effective as CBT in a randomized controlled trial (Merry, Stasiak, and Shepherd, 4). Gratic et al. also note that traditional therapy is expensive and not available to all in need. Video games as treatment are inexpensive; they are easily sent to rural location, can be completed outside of work hours and are not associated with the social stigma that surrounds CBT. 

Furthermore, video games have also been shown to facilitate flow, “a state of complete absorption in an activity that produces an altered sense of time and release of vital energy” (Csikszentmihalyi cited in: Kapitan 1). Flow must have two essential characteristics; total concentration on the task at hand and a balance of challenge and skill level (Arnold Bakker, 2004, 27).  The experience of flow has been associated with a wealth of positive effects in adolescence, including higher self-esteem, less anxiety and greater achievement and commitment in high school (Gratic et al).  Art therapists create positive change in a client through the use of facilitating extended states of flow through artistic process and expression (Chilton).   Therefore, the flow induced by video games can be utilized to create positive outcomes similar in many aspects to flow induced by art therapy (Gratic et al). These arguments make it clear that surely video games should be used as a means of therapeutic intervention to improve mental health. 

Works Cited

Bakker, Arnold B. “Flow Among Music Teachers and Their Students: The Crossover of Peak Experiences.” Journal of Vocational Behaviour 66.1 (2005): 26-44. Web. 17 June 2014.

Chilton, Gioia. “Art Therapy and Flow: A Review of the Literature and Applications.” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association 30.2 (2013): 60-70. PsychINFO, Web. 17 June 2014.

Granic, Isabela, Adam Lobel, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels. “The Benefits Of Playing Video Games.” American Psychologist 69.1 (2014): 66-78. PsycINFO. Web. 1 July 2014.

Kapitan, Lynn. “Art Therapy’s Sweet Spot Between Art, Anxiety and the Flow Experience.” Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association  30.2 (2013): 54-55. Web. 17 June 2014.

Merry, S. N., K. Stasiak, and M. Shepherd. “SPARX: A Computerized Self-Help Intervention For Teen Depression.” Brown University Child & Adolescent Behavior Letter 28.6 (2012): 3-5. Academic Search Complete. Web. 29 July 2014.



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