Can a Commercial Video Game Prevent Depression? Null Results and Whole Sample Action Mechanisms in a Randomized Controlled Trial

Marlou Poppelaars*, Anna Lichtwarck-Aschoff, Roy Otten, Isabela Granic

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)
76 Downloads (Pure)


Depressive symptoms and disorders are major public health concerns, affecting many adolescents and young adults. Despite extensive research, depression prevention programs for youth show limited effectiveness. Moreover, the maximal potential of youth psychotherapy - on which depression prevention programs are based - may have been reached. Commercial video games may offer an engaging alternative vehicle for youth to practice emotional and social skills vital to mental health. The current study investigated the potential for the commercial video game Journey to prevent the exacerbation of depressive symptoms. A pre-registered randomized controlled trial tested the effectiveness of Journey as an indicated depression prevention approach compared to a control game condition and a passive control condition (Dutch Trial Register: NL4873, ). Additionally, potential action mechanisms for depression prevention using video games were examined. Participants aged 15 to 20 years old with elevated depressive symptoms (n = 244, M-age = 17.11, SDage = 1.76, 66.4% female) were given 4 weeks to play Journey (M-duration = 3 h 20 min) or the control game, Flower (M-duration = 2 h 36 min). Results showed no beneficial effects of playing the commercial video game, Journey, on youth's change in depressive symptoms above and beyond the active and passive control conditions up to 12-months after the intervention. Additionally, no action mechanisms were found specifically for Journey. Nevertheless, over the whole study, participants decreased in depressive symptoms, became less sensitive to rejection, and experienced more hope and optimism. Moreover, participants who during the study decreased in rejection sensitivity or rumination or who increased in hope and optimism or in distraction and problem solving showed the strongest decrease in depressive symptoms. Although results do not support the use of the studied commercial game as an effective indicated depression prevention strategy, our results do suggest that rejection sensitivity, hope, optimism, rumination, distraction, and problem solving are promising targets for future depression prevention efforts. We conclude with important lessons for future research on games to promote mental health. Particularly, encouraging careful consideration of research designs to explore for whom and how potential action mechanisms and associated game mechanics may be effective.

Original languageEnglish
Article number575962
Number of pages17
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 12-Jan-2021
Externally publishedYes


  • prevention
  • randomized controlled trial
  • depression
  • adolescents
  • young adults
  • commercial video games
  • journey
  • flower


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