We take an in-depth look at some of the positive aspects of gaming with regards to mental health, some of the conversations that often get sidelined in favor of sensationalist and reactionary discussions of addiction, violent and antisocial behavior.
Depending on who you listen to about the negative effects that gaming can have on society and the people within it, you may have heard discussions about gaming focusing on problems like addiction, an emphasis on violence, antisocial behaviour, a lack of physical activity, and other potential problems often associated with excessive gaming. These issues can in some cases be very real, but it’s also worth contrasting these issues with the positives. Often this subject gets sensationalized and exaggerated, leaving little room for a nuanced discussion on the potential benefits of gaming for mental health, wellbeing, and improvement of quality of life. Too often, the entire medium of gaming is demonised, and potentially positive aspects of gaming get sidelined. We’ve decided to take a more balanced approach to look at the impacts gaming can have on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing, identifying some of the positive aspects of gaming that often get forgotten or ignored.
This traditional view of gaming as an inherently harmful pastime does not match up with the reality of the experience of many people today, especially for a younger generation. Gaming has been a mainstream pastime for many years, first exploding into popularity in the 1980s, and growing more commonplace with each passing year. Whether people are embracing games for the first time, or whether they grew up with games playing a part in their life for a long time, it’s a pastime that millions of people all around the world get a kick out of, and it’s worth considering people’s real experience of gaming beyond the sensationalist headlines and scapegoating.
People are far more complex creatures than any narrowly defined assessment of what a gamer is, and especially when enjoyed in moderation, there are literally billions of gamers out there, many of whom have an extremely positive and rewarding relationship with their hobby. These are healthy and productive individuals, contributing meaningfully to society, with a balanced lifestyle and a rich and varied set of hobbies.
Historically, many things that are simply new and enjoyed by younger generations, get scapegoated and criticised for corrupting the minds of the youth. Whether it’s music created to engage with the youth of the time (Hip Hop, Heavy Metal, Punk, and Rock & Roll), freshly created artistic mediums like comic books, new styles of dancing, new fashion trends, Horror movies, and other innocent pastimes have often been swept up in a wave of moral panic, with often reductive or even reactionary analysis by people who don’t really understand them and don’t care to make any effort to develop an understanding. It’s easy to disregard an entire cultural medium and art form if you don’t put the effort into trying to understand it.
The negative stigma associated with gaming, and the negative perception it can have, has increased with the World Health Association’s decision to categorise addiction as a medical disorder. According to the WHO, a gaming disorder is “characterised by a pattern of persistent or recurrent gaming behaviour“. A lot of the criteria they describe would just as easily apply to a passionate musician, an avid reader, a dedicated sports fan, or anyone else that commits their time and concentration to a hobby. These pastimes don’t have anything like the same negative connotations associated with them as gaming, even when taken to the obsessive extremes that some people can take them to.
Here’s our breakdown of some of the more positive aspects of gaming, benefits that games can bring to their players, and to society at large, that can often be completely sidelined.
Perhaps as an indirect consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, where people across the world are spending more time in their homes, and reducing their direct physical social contact, we can start to reexamine some of the commonly held misconceptions and prejudices about the impact gaming can have on people’s mental health and wellbeing. With regular contact from the workplace, schools, bars, and restaurants being reduced, and some people confining themselves to their home for extended periods of time, video games have been an excellent escape from real-world sources of anxiety and stress. People can’t leave their homes but can explore virtual worlds to their heart’s content. People have had to cancel plans for international travel, but they can visit their favourite in-game locations. We’re following guidelines for social distancing but can spend time connecting with friends and family in online multiplayer gaming sessions.
Even without the restrictions on social contact resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual spaces have been an excellent setting for socialising, particularly for children. In inner-city urban settings, access to public spaces has been declining in many areas in recent years. Many spaces that were formerly available for the public to access for free have been commercially or privately developed, forcing people and especially children to socialise far more in virtual spaces, fulfilling the need for social interaction and connection through shared gaming experiences. As games increasingly tend towards being accessible to as many people as possible, available on the widest range of devices, and with options at a variety of price points, there’s scope for breaking down social barriers along lines of wealth, class, and location.
For people with physical disabilities, video games can offer an escape into a world where they can either somewhat or entirely sidestep some of the barriers that limit accessibility to pastimes and activities that they’d otherwise want to engage in. This is a great way for kids to play with their friends, without the physical challenges that might be present for some activities like sports. People with physical disabilities can also engage in simulated activities that might otherwise be too physically difficult to perform in the real world. Through gaming, people with physical disabilities can enjoy a simulated experience of activities like racing, playing sports, piloting a plane, tank, or even spaceship. This is an excellent way to stay mentally stimulated and socially engaged in a world that can otherwise be full of physical barriers and other difficulties.
Games can also be used as a means to break down cultural barriers. When two individuals don’t have a shared language between them, they can still interact and communicate using the medium of games. You can form a human bond with someone that you would struggle to otherwise interact with by simply enjoying a gaming experience together since there are a great number of games available that don’t require any language-based interactions. Similarly, we can see games from all over the world achieve a degree of success internationally, whereas a byproduct of people simply playing, they can engage in cultural exchange. You can passively or actively learn all about another culture through the lens of writing, voice or acting performances, art, music, architecture, history, cuisine and geography all included in games. So many of the problems in our world can be attributed to people not perceiving themselves as global citizens, putting more emphasis on what divides us, rather than unites us. Finding ways to overcome this mindset can be a positive move for all of us. It’s far harder to harbor resentment to people of another nationality if your favourite games come from that country, or if you regularly play online multiplayer with people from there.
Certain games can offer users a therapeutic experience, whether by directly tackling themes that might help people grapple with an explore circumstances they can relate to, or by depicting characters dealing with similar circumstances.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, from British developer Ninja Theory, is a game that directly takes on themes exploring mental health, with the main character grappling with and ultimately overcoming mental illness and psychosis. Celeste is also a 2D platformer with a plot centred around a character battling their inner demons and overcoming depression. These games, by creating a narrative directly built around exploring these types of themes, can give players a safe and entertaining way to explore these ideas in a way that they otherwise might not be able to.
There are also relaxing games like Flower, A Short Hike, and Animal Crossing that offer a relaxing low stakes way to play, which can help players relax and take their mind off other issues that might feel overwhelming. These are the types of games highlighted by Wholesome Games, a collective dedicated to highlighting non-violent games with an emphasis on styles of play involving compassion, social interaction, exploration, and positive interactions with the surrounding environment. These types of games offer a fantastic opportunity for engaging with games in a manner that avoids violence, aggression, and intense competition, and are accessible to a wide audience.
Beyond these examples, there are also games that are grounded in the subtext of some kind of message, whether the environmental message of Sonic The Hedgehog, the exploration of trauma in the Silent Hill series, or the depiction of humanity leaving earth behind in Sid Meier Alpha Centauri. There are many games that offer an alternative perspective on many key areas of modern life and offer alternative perspectives on a range of topics that might help individuals deal with the world around them.
There is a huge variety of professions that one can go into, using gaming as a springboard. A lot of these career choices, whilst still extremely hard work, allow people to turn a hobby into a career.
The games industry is estimated to be worth around 90 billion US Dollars, and it’s still growing at a rapid pace.
People seeking out a career related to video games can rather than force themselves into a career that they have no interest in, find a job that fulfills them creatively, and offers a way to turn their passion into their profession.
Roles in video games include jobs like programmers, software engineers, artists, musicians, animators, testers, marketing, PR, journalism, streaming, and broadcasting. These are all jobs that allow scope for creativity and can not only offer stable and reliable income but can lead to fulfilling and rewarding careers. It’s a far more modern industry, that can under the right circumstances fit better into people’s desired way of life.
Gaming communities have got a fantastic track record of working with charities, with organisations like Humble Bundle, Games Done Quick, and War Child Gaming generating millions of dollars of charitable donations each year. Not only is this a positive use of people’s passion and enthusiasm for gaming, but it’s also a brilliant way to raise money for worthwhile causes, including those which do a great deal of good in wider society.
Some of the drive behind these gaming charitable causes is to directly show to the world some of the positivity that can come from gaming, bringing people together with a love of gaming, and an empathetic mindset towards the people that each of these respective charities supports.
Whilst a great many games are primarily built with entertainment as the main priority, a side-effect of creating an entertaining and engaging game is often to create a mentally engaging and stimulating game.
Lots of games build skills like hand-eye coordination, numeracy, literacy, and problem-solving. These can be excellent for young inquisitive minds that are hoping to build skills in these areas. There is a particular type of cognitive skill that can come from playing a variety of styles of games, and over years this can become finely tuned.
They’re also fantastic for helping to keep elderly people mentally active, whether that’s using games with an emphasis on regular but manageable mental tests, or games with an emphasis on testing your memory and concentration.
These are just some of the ways that healthy gaming habits can improve and enhance people’s quality of life and wellbeing, aspects of gaming that too often get sidelined in favor of more sensationalist and narrow-minded analysis that ignores the positive experiences that the vast majority of players have when gaming.
An extensive look at some of the positive effects of gaming, based on the reality of people’s experiences, not attention-grabbing headlines.