Anxiety is a mental disorder characterized by apprehension, tension, uneasiness, and other related behavioral disturbances. One of the nonpharmacological treatments used for reducing anxiety is serious games, which are games that have a purpose other than entertainment. The effectiveness of serious games in alleviating anxiety has been investigated by several systematic reviews; however, they were limited by design and methodological weaknesses.
This study aims to assess the effectiveness of serious games in alleviating anxiety by summarizing the results of previous studies and providing an up-to-date review.
We conducted a systematic review of randomized controlled trials (RCTs). The following seven databases were searched: MEDLINE, CINAHL, PsycINFO, ACM Digital Library, IEEE Xplore, Scopus, and Google Scholar. We also conducted backward and forward reference list checking for the included studies and relevant reviews. Two reviewers independently carried out the study selection, data extraction, risk of bias assessment, and quality of evidence appraisal. We used a narrative and statistical approach, as appropriate, to synthesize the results of the included studies.
Of the 935 citations retrieved, 33 studies were included in this review. Of these, 22 RCTs were eventually included in the meta-analysis. Very low-quality evidence from 9 RCTs and 5 RCTs showed no statistically significant effect of exergames (games entailing physical exercises) on anxiety levels when compared with conventional exercises (P=.70) and no intervention (P=.27), respectively. Although 6 RCTs demonstrated a statistically and clinically significant effect of computerized cognitive behavioral therapy games on anxiety levels when compared with no intervention (P=.01), the quality of the evidence reported was low. Similarly, low-quality evidence from 3 RCTs showed a statistically and clinically significant effect of biofeedback games on anxiety levels when compared with conventional video games (P=.03).
This review shows that exergames can be as effective as conventional exercises in alleviating anxiety; computerized cognitive behavioral therapy games and exergames can be more effective than no intervention, and biofeedback games can be more effective than conventional video games. However, our findings remain inconclusive, mainly because there was a high risk of bias in the individual studies included, the quality of meta-analyzed evidence was low, few studies were included in some meta-analyses, patients without anxiety were recruited in most studies, and purpose-shifted serious games were used in most studies. Therefore, serious games should be considered complementary to existing interventions. Researchers should use serious games that are designed specifically to alleviate depression, deliver other therapeutic modalities, and recruit a diverse population of patients with anxiety.
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