When you think of video games in the context of mental health, what comes to mind? For most people, the association is not a positive one. Concerns have been raised about video games causing violence; gaming culture being sexist, racist, and homophobic; and whether video game addiction should become an official diagnosis.
But while video games and gaming can have detrimental impacts in some contexts, what gets lost amidst the psychopathology-skewed headlines is that they can also provide significant benefits to our emotional health and well-being. In fact, game developers are now designing games with the specific purpose of addressing psychological issues and boosting emotional health.
For example, Sea of Solitude—developed by Jo-Mei Games and published by video gaming giant Electronic Arts—was created by Cornelia Geppert after a painful breakup in 2013. In the game, Kay, the heroine, has to fight humans who have turned into monsters because they became too lonely. To save herself from becoming one of them, she has to fight her own loneliness. The game is both emotional and compelling. I recently met Cornelia at a conference and witnessed firsthand the engagement and immersion of the attendees as they played it.
Multiplayer platforms can be especially conducive to increasing social connection, forming community, and reducing loneliness. Tom, a married man in his thirties, spends roughly 10 to 15 hours a week playing a multiplayer strategy game on his phone, in which he leads a group of sixty other players on complex missions. For the alliance to succeed in the game, they need to communicate effectively and work together.
As do many gaming teams, Tom’s group established a communication channel outside the game to discuss strategy and delegate tasks. But like on other such channels, discussions go far beyond the actual game. Players often share personal problems, challenges in their relationships, or difficult feelings such as loneliness. The outpouring of compassion and support they receive from the group in such instances fosters powerful feelings of connection and community.
Indeed, a study of social interactions within and outside multiplayer gaming platforms found that these kinds of platforms allowed players to express themselves in ways they might not feel able to in their real lives, leading to the creation of strong friendships, long-term relationships, and even marriages. And a 2014 review by Jones et.al., concluded that video games can help gamers flourish psychologically by generating positive emotions, boosting individual functioning, and enhancing social connections, all of which contributed to mental health and well-being.
The bottom line is that while video games can be problematic and even potentially "addictive" for some people (both children and adults), and while some gaming environments can indeed be hostile, we should not throw out the gaming console with the bathwater—so to speak. As is often the case, it isn’t necessarily the thing itself that is good or bad, but how we use it that matters.
Playing games that foster emotional health and psychological recovery, and taking advantage of the connective social fabric that can form in certain gaming environments could offer valuable opportunities for supporting and enhancing our mental health and emotional well-being.
Copyright 2019 Guy Winch