From the monastery to multiplayer games: How Healthy Gamer is helping the internet generation
A Harvard-trained addiction psychiatrist with a focus on video game addiction says the mental health industry didn’t understand the gamer’s brain—until now.
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In the early 2000s, Alok Kanojia’s future wasn’t rendering like it should.
A first-generation Texan raised by Indian immigrant parents, Alok was coming up on two years of academic probation with a GPA in the 2.0 range. As he slept through exams and threw out his grades without looking at them, Alok was rejected from medical school 120 times over three years. Gaming became a way to cope, but it wasn’t changing the outcome.
“So my dad sort of suggested I go to India to kind of find myself, and I wound up studying yoga and meditation and really loved it,” he says. “I really loved discovering a system that teaches us how we work and how our mind works, where our desires come from. I found answers to questions like why I couldn’t wake up on some days and go to class.”
Today Dr. Kanojia—or Dr. K, as he’s more commonly known—is still an active gamer with over 516,000 followers on Twitch, and he’s a highly regarded psychiatrist with a private practice and an instructor position at Harvard Medical School. Through a shared love of video games and confronting the issues that made him feel stuck in school, Dr. K has been able to connect with thousands of kids, parents and community members through the mental health platform he co-founded with his wife, Kruti Kanojia. The platform, Healthy Gamer, aims to coach struggling kids and teenagers while encouraging a positive relationship with video games.
Dr. Kanojia is a Harvard trained psychiatrist and active gamer.
His unique approach to mental health is heavily influenced by the seven years he spent training to become a monk, incorporating eastern philosophies like yoga and meditation into his practice of psychiatry. And he’s recently released a video series on meditation that’s specifically designed for gamers.
“The goal of the coaching program is not to treat a mental illness but to help people understand themselves better and kind of move forward in life,” Dr. K says. “And that’s sort of what Healthy Gamer is about. It’s not really about abstinence or overcoming addiction. It’s about building a healthy life that’s worth living.”
Intelligence avoidance and gamers
Growing up in Houston, Dr. K was considered a gifted kid. Early on, school came easy and he skipped a grade. As a result, he never learned how to study the hard subjects.
“That’s how you know you’re smart, right? Because things are easy for you,” Dr. K says. “So, if anything was a little bit difficult, if it was hard for me, that meant I wasn’t smart.”
It’s a characteristic that many gamers share: high intelligence and avoidance of topics that don’t come easy. In college, the shame of taking a Spanish test he didn’t understand was so bad, he’d just sleep through the exam.
“I remember getting my transcript in the mail and throwing it straight into the trash, not even looking at it, not even opening it,” he says.
Gaming became a way to escape the negative feelings. Neuroscience research shows that playing video games can actually suppress negative feelings, which is why gaming can become a coping mechanism and potentially addictive.
Prompted by his dad to go to India to find himself, Dr. K ended up studying in monasteries in India, South Korea and Japan but didn’t find a good fit. But through meditation, Dr. K realized he’d been avoiding the shame of trying things that didn’t come easy.
“There was so much avoidance, so much inability to tolerate my own negative emotions. Even my decision to become a monk was avoidance, because I felt like I couldn’t cut it in the real world,” he says. “I was going to rise above it, and I wasn’t going to be materialistic.”
Meditation helped him sit with the difficult feelings and, eventually, the realization that he was avoiding things that didn’t come easy. On the path to becoming a monk, Dr. K met his wife and decided to confront his avoidance. That made him realize he still wanted to go to medical school. In 2014, he graduated from the Tufts University of Medicine, became a Clinical Fellow at Harvard Medical School and started a private psychiatry practice.
Do mental health resources need a gaming update?
In his studies, Dr. K found that traditional psychiatry and psychology lacked the language and tools to communicate with a plugged-in, technology-driven generation. He was well aware of the effects—positive and negative—that video games had had on his own mental health, but the topic “wasn’t really mentioned at all during formal psychiatric training.”
“Research moves slower than technology,” Dr. K explains. “If you think about how much technology has progressed and how rapidly it progresses, I just don’t think that academic research has been able to keep pace.”
And mental health resources as they exist just don’t get gamers, according to the Healthy Gamer website. “Psychiatry today is too slow (10-week wait times to get an appointment), too old (55% of psychiatrists are age 55 and up and didn’t grow up in the gaming era) and too expensive (depression is the sixth most expensive disease).” Meanwhile, suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10–34, and the prevalence of major depressive disorder among 18-to-25-year-olds has increased 63% between 2009 and 2017.
Research also shows that gamers’ brains are wired differently, Dr. K says, and he’s not the first to come to that conclusion. A 2015 study found “evidence of hyperconnectivity between certain areas of the brain, as well as increased levels of distractibility” in gamers. Video games have also been found to have a number of cognitive benefits, like “improvement in spatial skills, which is directly related to performance in STEM coursework and ability.”
But when that hobby turns into a crutch to help players avoid reality, it can become a problem. That’s where Healthy Gamer comes in.
Changing the conversation through community and coaching
The Healthy Gamer journey started with a Reddit AMA—that’s “Ask Me Anything.” Identifying himself as a “Harvard-trained addiction psychiatrist with a focus on video game addiction,” Dr. K encouraged Redditors to ask questions about the relationship between gaming and mental health.
The response was overwhelming: Hundreds of inquisitive gamers took to the comments section to ask questions about Dr. K’s background and the difference between a healthy and unhealthy relationship with video games.
“Unfortunately, the stories that I heard far too often were that these people would go into an office, get diagnosed with depression and then get sent home on a medication,” Dr. K says. “But they would still play a game for 10 hours a day.”
Some shared their own experiences with intelligence and avoidance. From there, Dr. K launched a pilot program with 15 gamers that yielded positive results: “They are in healthy relationships, have higher grades, have gained acceptance into graduate programs, are engaged in real-world activities and have mental clarity and purpose,” according to the website.
“I mean, I had a career at the time,” Dr. K says of the time when he was practicing psychiatry and providing mental health support for gamers on the side. “We’d spend a few hours on a couple of weeknights and weekends trying to support these people that the mental health system had kind of failed.”
It’s not therapy or psychiatry: It’s a tailored approach to gamers
What began as a side hustle has turned into a full-time job for the in-demand psychiatrist. In just under three years, Healthy Gamer has established itself as a fount of resources for gamers and their parents. At the core of the platform is its coaching program, which helps gamers “work on health and fulfillment together through support groups and a tailored curriculum.”
Not therapy or psychiatry, this tailored approach addresses gamers’ mental, physical, social and emotional well-being, as well as real-world consequences of an overdependence on video games. On top of that, Dr. K helps parents understand how their kids’ brains are wired and how to effectively communicate with them.
“The biggest problem that I see with parents is that parents don’t understand their kids. And so they develop a very antagonistic relationship ... the parents are trying to take their video game away.” For Dr. K, being a healthy gamer doesn’t mean giving up video games entirely; it means making them part of a fulfilling lifestyle.
Diagnoses of gaming addiction and disorder are controversial among gamers and mental health professionals, and Dr. K is the first to admit there’s a “gray area” there. Despite the Healthy Gamer website’s focus on gaming addiction, Dr. K stresses that it’s only “5% to 10%” of what he works on in his quest to help people become healthy gamers.
“I do believe that gaming addiction is a real thing,” Dr. K says. However, “It may not be the same kind of addiction as, let’s say, a biological substance use disorder.” In a nutshell, “If gaming is interfering with your personal relationships, academic performance, professional performance, or physical or mental health, then you’ve got a problem.”
From monk-in-training to gaming and meditation influencer
In addition to coaching and community, the third pillar of Healthy Gamer is content. This includes blog posts, an active social media presence and a YouTube channel with over half a million subscribers. On this channel, gamers and parents can explore resources at their own pace, with topics covering everything from anxiety and depression to motivation styles and meditation.
Dr. K’s meditation videos, in particular, have received a lot of attention from the Healthy Gamer community. The number of views ranges from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.
“When we started Healthy Gamer, I was going to lean heavily toward Harvard and neuroscience,” he says. However, his meditation techniques struck a chord with viewers, whose positive and moving feedback led him to expand that area of content.
Though he was “surprised” at the response, Dr. K understands the need for more inward-seeking content. “We’ve gotten so information-based on YouTube … five tips for productivity, five things for this, five things for that. People are just really hungry for authentic experiences of self … meditation is essentially a microscope looking within.”
For Dr. K, meditation “is about figuring out what you feel. Meditation trains your brain to notice things with awareness.” That way, people can examine their negative feelings and find ways to tolerate or address them instead of looking for outside means of coping.
Gaming with a purpose
In just three years, Healthy Gamer has already reported overwhelmingly positive results. According to its own 2020–21 Impact Report, 82% of clients had reduced anxiety, while 80% experienced a reduction in depression. Meanwhile, 76% of clients reduced problematic gaming, and 74% of clients increased their sense of life purpose.
In May 2021, Dr. K and his wife announced the Healthy Gamer Foundation, a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit established to “fund and conduct research that can impact mental health policy on local, state, national and international levels,” among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Healthy Gamer has grown to a company that employs over 70 people and has invested over $1 million in creating resources for the gaming community.
“We have a saying at Healthy Gamer in our group coaching,” Dr. K says. “Everyone has one piece of the puzzle.” The mental health industry might be lagging behind when it comes to understanding technology, but organizations like Healthy Gamer are helping gamers put those puzzle pieces together.
“When we come together and share our experiences,” he says, “We can actually move forward faster and more definitively than we could on our own.”