Over the years, studies about video games’ impact on mental health have provoked calls to regulate and limit their use. Researchers and developers in more recent years have shouldered the responsibility of investigating gaming’s true effects on well-being.
Video games are the villains of our youth. They get us addicted and turn us into violent hobgoblins that only emerge from our dens when the scent of dinner creeps under the door.
Tellingly, coverage of these studies often omits that these negative impacts mainly occur due to excessive gameplay
So goes the life of a gamer in the eyes of the wider world since studies like Anderson et al (2014) and Müller and Wölfling (2017) suggested that video games make us violent, obese, and addicted. Media outlets jumped on these findings and demonised the common gamer.
Tellingly, coverage of these studies often omits that these negative impacts mainly occur due to excessive gameplay. Video games aren’t as demonic as they’re presented to be and offer many benefits to our mental health, including:
- Problem Solving
- Social Interaction
- ‘Ecstasy of Order’
What about evidence?
A University of Oxford study conducted in collaboration with EA and Nintendo of America surveyed the “well-being, need satisfaction and motivation” of players while playing two games – Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. This was combined with telemetry data of the players provided by the developers.
The survey found that those with intrinsic motivations playing (fun, socialising, etc) felt more satisfied and had a more positive experience than those with extrinsic motivations (peer-pressure, being paid, etc), leading to increased mood and happiness.
Using these findings, Johannes et al (2020) suggested that “players’ in-game motivational experiences can contribute to affective well-being, but they do not affect the degree to which game time relates to well-being,” meaning that the frequency and intensity of emotions and mood can be affected by what motivates gameplay.
A study by Nick Yee (2007) identified three motivations behind gaming: achievement, socialising, and immersion. Gamers want to progress in games and compete against one another to be the best. It’s that sense of victory that pulls us back, craving to feel it again.
There’s also a desire to build connections driving us to turn on our consoles and put our headsets on. Finally, we have a need to escape, and experience a new life through our avatars, whether that’s as an Italian plumber or a super-soldier.
Granic et al (2012)’s meta-analysis ‘The Benefits of Playing Video Games’ explored the cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social benefits of video games on mental health. They found that young gamers benefitted cognitively since they “problem-solve through trial and error, recursively collecting evidence which they test through experimentation” while exploring new territories and searching for how to complete the game.
The studies that Granic et al analysed focused on problem solving in strategy games and RPGs, but the same improvement wasn’t found in faster-paced games like fighters or racers. For RPGs, the main goal set out for the player isn’t clear: World of Warcraft has multitudes of primary and secondary quests and gives give you the freedom to play however you want. Comparatively, something like Mario Cart 8 Deluxe has a clear A to B objective.
One non-RPG game that could help you develop your problem solving is 2020 gaming sensation, platforming battle royale Fall Guys.
Fall Guys casts you as a sentient jellybean and pits you against other players in obstacle-course races. Offering both individual and team challenges, players use their problem-solving ability to overcome various obstacles. One such obstacle is the physics-based See Saw race, where you must calculate the best moment to run across the tilting platforms.
Being able to resolve problems and overcome obstacles strengthens resilience and our ability to cope in stressful, unexpected situations. However, more research is needed before anyone can guarantee these problem-solving skills are transferrable.
In 2019, Iowa State University conducted a study examining video games’ ability to boost creativity. Their game of choice? Minecraft.
The study examined the Minecraft gameplay of 352 undergraduates and compared its effect on creativity to the that of other entertainment like watching TV. It also included other variable groups like playing the game by following instructions. They found that the Minecraft players achieved much higher scores on post-game creativity measures than other variable groups, indicating that playing Minecraft boosted their creativity.
Engaging in creative activities helps to alleviate feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression. Therefore, immersing yourself in a creative game for a healthy amount of time relieves stress and improves your overall mood.
The next time your creativity needs a pick-me-up or you’re feeling stressed, try building something in Minecraft!
4. Social Interaction
In 2005, World of Warcraft’s European release faced heavy criticism for its addictiveness and hindering real-life social interaction. Yet in the current pandemic, where real-life interactions are inhibited, video games have provided people with much-needed socialisation.
James Wright, a Marketing Executive at Mediatonic Games, shared with me that he felt “for people who find being their authentic self difficult or restricted on a day-to-day level, spaces like MMOs offer an opportunity for expression and that can be hugely helpful and cathartic for a lot of people if it’s done in healthy, considerate way”.
Adding to James’ point, video games allow people across the world to communicate via in-game chat, private parties, and messaging. They enable players to interact in a meaningful and supportive way. These social connections give players a greater sense of belonging and increased happiness. Take for example COD: Warzone.
Although shooters raise questions about their impact on players’ aggression levels, they also provide the benefit of building team-working and communication abilities as players work together to win battle royales and money heists.
Video games also provide a safe space for socially inept and vulnerable people to interact. They can gain new social skills without the stress or pressure of face-to-face communication, with the added cushion of a common interest.
5. Need Satisfaction
While Allen and Anderson’s 2019 study determined need satisfaction as strong incentive, actually pleasing these needs is a benefit in itself.
Johnnie Allen (Iowa State University) conducted a study of the two-week daily diaries of 133 undergraduates who regularly played video games. Allen found some improvement in overall well-being when needs were satisfied by video games, but not as much as when they were satisfied in real-life.
The ‘ecstasy of order’ alludes to satisfying our need for harmony and control
Another need satisfied by games is the need for control. Coined in the 2011 documentary Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, the ‘ecstasy of order’ alludes to satisfying our need for harmony and control. This is satisfied by multiple genres like rhythm, and tile-matching games.
Feeling a lack of control in real-life can lead to increased stress and anxiety, something many of us felt in 2020. Escaping into a fictional world or conquering a challenge in games give us control back, and ultimately reduces psychological distress.
Have you ever thought about why trapping Sims in a doorless room was so satisfying? Because it gives you control.
Although video games do have numerous negatives against them, there are just as many positives. Media and academia continue to critique and investigate them, but for now, we can take solace in using games as our own digital stress ball
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