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What are Serious Games?

Serious games are a form of digital medicine (a.k.a. digital therapeutics) which incorporates game-like elements (e.g., points, achievements, levelling-up) into Internet- or app-based treatments to increase interest, enjoyment, motivation, and adherence [Ref 1-3]. Within the past few years, the clinical effectiveness of serious games has been scientifically evaluated, particularly in relation to mental health and psychosocial outcomes, demonstrating small but consistently positive effects in line with many pharmaceutical treatments [Ref 1,2].

Likewise, a variety of serious games have been, and continue to be, developed for neurodiverse individuals [Ref 3-5]. For example, Carier and colleagues developed two mini-games (New Horizon and SpaceControl) for autistic children and their parents which incorporated relaxation techniques and found that these games significantly reduced autistic children’s stress and anxiety [Ref 5]. Serious games have also shown to have a positive impact on social interaction and competency skills for autistic youth [Ref 3-4], although the generalisability of such programs to autistic and neurodiverse adults remains to be investigated.

As such, serious games provide a fun and engaging alternative to mental health and psychosocial treatments that capitalise on performance-based rewards, challenges, and achievements that can be geared to each individual’s strengths and goals [Ref 6,7]. Furthermore, serious games also provide external motivators and (some) control over the degree of social interaction (e.g., increasing social interaction at higher game levels) which may be more appealing to some neurodiverse individuals who experience social anxiety and/or are more comfortable in indirect social situations.

Thus, serious games are a promising avenue for the future of digital therapeutics in mental health and neurodiverse populations and should continue to be investigated for evidence-based clinical efficacy in autistic youth and adults.

[You might like to read our other blog about Gaming As Therapy]


1 – Lau, H.M., Smit, J.H., Fleming, T.M., & Riper, H. (2017). Serious games for mental health: Are they accessible, feasible, and effective? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 7(209). 1-13. http://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2016.00209

2 – Fleming, T.M., Bavin, L., Stasiak, K., Hermansson-Webb, E., Merry, S.N., Cheek, C., Lucassen, M., Pollmuller, B., & Hetrick, S. (2017). Serious games and gamification for mental health: Current status and promising directions. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 7(215). 1-7. http://dx.doi.org/fpsyt.2015.00215

3 – Grossard, C., Grynspan, O., Serret, S., Jouen, A.L., Bailly, K., & Cohen, D. (2017). Serious games to teach social interactions and emotions to individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Computers and Education, 113, 195-211. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2017.05.002

4 – Jiménez-Muñoz, L., Peñuelas-Calvo, I., Calvo-Rivera, P., Diaz-Oliván, I., Moreno, M., Baca-Garcia, E., & Porras-Segovia, A. (2021). Video games for the treatment of autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10803-021-04934-9

5 – Carlier, S., Van der Paelt, S., Ongenae, F., & De Backere F. (2020). Empowering children with ASD and their parents: Design of a serious game for anxiety and stress reduction. Sensors, 20, 996. 1-41. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/s20040966

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