Gaming is wildly popular. 60% of Americans say they play video games daily, and 75% of US households own a device they can play games on: phones, tablets, big screens, and other devices. Not unexpectedly, video games saw a 73% growth in sales during the pandemic, as people went online to socialize and escape.
As popular as they are, games are also controversial; some believe they are addictive and others think they interrupt normal social interaction. However, recent scientific studies have found gaming can play a positive role in mental health, and in this article, we’ll tell you about those studies and debunk a few gaming myths along the way.
Survey finds gaming can provide stress relief
Video games can be a fun way to pass the time, and for those with challenges, they can provide a much-needed distraction from difficult situations. Games can be a low-stakes outlet for people to let off steam when they feel frustrated by school or work. Games which encourage exercise and socializing can even promote emotional wellness. Dr. Alok Kanojia who researches game addiction at Harvard Medical School says on the very positive side, “video games literally allow us to escape negative emotions and suppress them.”
A 2019 survey found that almost 80% of gamers say video games provide them with mental stimulation, relaxation, and stress relief. The same survey found that some gamers - like competitive athletes who ‘live and breathe’ their sport - also report anxiety associated with game performance and expertise. The key here, like anything, is balance - and having tools and supports in place to manage mental health issues.
Two studies find positive correlation between gaming and mental health
Several research studies have found that some games can play a positive role in mental health. For example, a study at Oxford University which focused on those who play Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, found that people who played more games tend to report greater wellbeing. In fact, Animal Crossing is part of the ‘cozy game’ movement - a new genre of video games that rose in popularity during the pandemic, whose beautiful graphics, clever storylines, soaring soundtracks, and fluid end goals make them feel “approachable, stress-free and bite-sized.” Gamers who play cozy games say these games provide a way for them to “chill out with cute and colorful graphics, meditative tasks, and feel a sense of accomplishment” - all of which can contribute positively to mental health.
Another study on location-based, mobile games like Pokémon GO (a game that lets players combine gameplay with real-world exercise), found that these games may be able to help alleviate depression symptoms in players, because they encourage exercise, contact with nature, community, and social connection. The researchers reported they were “able to connect use of Pokémon GO to a ‘significant short-term decrease in depression-related internet searches’, which is a common and reliable method of monitoring mental health, and therefore the game may help with mild, non-clinical forms of depression.”
On a positive side note, the game maker community appears to be tackling the depiction of mental illness within games. Negative tropes about mental illness have existed in games since the beginning, but lately, creators have been trying to change that - even hiring psychologists to make sure there are no negative stereotypes in their games (even if inadvertently).
If you or a loved one need help with mental health issues, consider contacting a telebehavioral health professional
As with anything, if you or your loved one is a gamer and is experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety, it's best to turn to a qualified mental health professional who can distinguish between everyday stress and something more serious.
Frontiers in Psychology: Gaming well: links between video games and flourishing mental health
The Guardian: Video gaming can benefit mental health, find Oxford academics
Journal of Management Information Systems: Location-Based Mobile Gaming and Local Depression Trends: A Study of Pokémon Go