Exploring The Positive Impact of Gaming on Mental Health
We've already discussed the way gaming helps us create lasting connections and the value that games bring to players' lives, but I've saved my favorite—and perhaps the most controversial—topic for last. In this post, we're diving into something that many of us swear by and others insist doesn't exist: The positive effects that video games can have on our mental health.
I’m no psychologist, and I’m not trying to pretend that there can never be a negative correlation between a person’s gaming and their mental health and social life, of course, but in this post, I aim to celebrate all that gaming has to offer in a positive regard. I’ll relate my own experiences as well as the experiences of several gamers who have found gaming a boon to their social adjustment and psychological comfort, and I’d like to think of us as a representative sample, though of course our stories here are nothing more than anecdotal in the scientific sense. Either way, I feel strongly that whether playing alone or in a universe populated with myriad avatars from all over the world, many people find gaming to be the thing that helps them take on real-world responsibilities and the face challenges of the everyday, and we are often better of because of it.
It's been clear to me for a while that the way I game has been influenced by my social needs at the time. Before I left Arkansas, I’d have described myself as an extrovert. Back home, I’d lose my mind if I spent an entire day at home. I had to go out and be social at some point. I needed to be around people to be energized and enjoy myself. Similarly, gaming in Arkansas used to be an in-person, multi-player experience: having friends over for DDR dance parties, playing against each other in NES basketball, Half-Life played on multiple computers at friends' houses, and even just handing the controller back and forth with each death in Tomb Raider. Back then, I made gaming a group activity as much as I could, because I wanted to be in groups as much as I could. I wanted noise, excitement, and people around as often as possible.
But moving to New York City changed that. Between the NYC's go-go-go atmosphere, the never ending physical and mental exertion of navigating the city, the constantly being surrounded by strangers (NYC alone has nearly three times the number of people as my whole home state), not to mention being in grad school and working as a server—let’s just say I couldn’t wait to get home and shut the door of my tiny, dark, absurdly expensive bedroom at the end of every day. My gaming habits reflected this period in my life pretty perfectly, too. After that move, gaming became my quiet time. It was my escape from the hustle and bustle, and I suddenly wanted nothing more than to do it alone. I don't live in New York anymore, and my social life has evened back out to what I've consider a happy medium, but even so, gaming has remained my way to unwind at the end of a long day. It's my me time, and I love it for that.
This is true, too, for Patrick, the paramedic and gamer who was first introduced in "How Imaginary Worlds Can Lead to Real-Life Connections." “I’m a ‘homebody,’” he says. Patrick enjoys his time alone, and he says that gaming online “allows [him] to be alone, while still socializing with others.”
Like me, Lennon used gaming as a way to be social as a kid, but for him, it became even more than that. “I've been a gamer since I was like... 8, way back in the early 90s when I was playing Paperboy on my NES or playing 2nd Edition D&D with my buddies,” Lennon explains. “I've always enjoyed exploring worlds other people built, and this especially kicked off when I discovered Diablo and my parents indulged me by letting me load it onto the family computer. It was D&D... On a computer! And I got to explore this incredibly cool world which is very exciting for a young kid who grew up reading and imagining fantasy worlds to finally see one built in great detail.” But for Lennon, gaming went beyond simply enjoying the images on the screen and the story that coincides. It was an escape. He explains that “for a smart kid with depression who feels like his hometown is shrinking as he goes from middle to high school [experiencing this fantasy world was] a bit of a relief." For Lennon, his games were "somewhere else [he] could mentally go and experience to relieve that boredom.”
Tragger, the freelance graphic designer you met in the "Is There Value in Gaming?" post agrees. She says unequivocally that gaming has helped her social life. She’s a member of several women-centric gaming groups on Facebook and says that “being able to talk about games with other nerds is great.” She says the communities have gotten even better over the last year. Louie, the business owner and avid gamer featured in both of the previous posts, says gaming has been somewhat of a lifeline for him over the years. “I don’t think I would have survived many of the challenging parts of my life if it wasn’t for gaming,” Louie explains. “From Halo LAN parties to long sessions of StarCraft with people I would never meet, I think I learned how to interact with a lot of people on television screens.”
It’s not all about whom you interact with, though—sometimes the games themselves can be an escape that reinvigorates a player, making it easier for them to return to interacting with the real world. Similar to how an introvert might need to “recharge” with some time at home before going out to a social event, many folks use games for all sorts of revitalization. Joey, an avid gamer since the days of Rollercoaster Tycoon, has a healthy social life that his single-player games don’t infringe on—rather, they enhance it. For Joey single-player games can be a place of refuge at the end of an otherwise anxious day, enabling him to have renewed energy to face the world when it’s time. I can relate completely. Some time around the end of high school, I developed anxiety. Panic attacks used to rule my life (and sometimes still do). But I can feel that tension, that spring wound tight inside me, release its charge when I settle in in front of my computer and click on the Battle.net icon. I’m similar to Joey in that my favorite way to unwind at the end of the day tends to be playing something alone, like clearing out my daily quests on Hearthstone which, while not technically single player (though there is that option too), acts as my happy place as I only have to interact with the gameboard, not the person on the other side of my opponent’s deck. Playing makes me feel refreshed, it lets my brain settle, and it leaves me feeling soothed and rejuvenated. I don’t make friends through Hearthstone (I could, but I choose not to—it’s my “me time” game, after all), but it helps me unwind and recharge my social battery for a new day, and that’s exactly what I need from it.
Mai, the gaming mom and entrepreneur first introduced in the previous post, has similar experiences. “I play for fun and to help pass time, but I notice that I tend to play a game to help me process current stressors.” She adds, “I think being proactive with my mental health helped me identify this,” and I believe that’s the key. Gaming can hurt, sure. We’ve all heard those stereotypes and stories, but gaming can also help, as long we know how to make proper use of it.
Lisa, the video game producer you met in the last two articles, doesn’t usually play a ton of multiplayer games either. Lisa explains, “when I do, it’s usually either a roleplaying game or a strategy game, both of which I often prefer to do alone—in my own way and on my own time. (I also like traveling solo, so that might just be me.)” She adds, “I think I avoid many multiplayer games because [feeling left behind when friends play at a quicker pace] happens often—I prefer to really absorb the environment, make discoveries, and complete areas before moving forward, whereas friends frequently get into ‘rush to the end’ mode.” In my very first post here, I waxed poetic about the beauty of taking games at your own pace and avoiding the pressure of racing the masses to the end, so I completely understand Lisa’s preference and playstyle. What’s important to note, I think, is that despite the previous two articles' focus on the in-game and real-world connections gaming can bring, it doesn’t have to be a group experience to provide players with myriad positive attributes.
Lennon’s experiences seem to corroborate this. “As for mental health,” he explains, “I actually find gaming does me a bit of good. I've long carried the diagnosis of major depression and one of the symptoms is that anhedonia you feel towards hobbies and people and experiences. And that’s really true, you just kinda lose interest in everything. Except I never really lost interest in gaming. It's always been a bit of lifeline that I clung to.” Lennon continues, “One of the non-medical treatment strategies that really worked for me was establishing an ‘anchor’ point in your life that let you organize the rest of your life around it so you could build focus and purpose. And sure, it would probably be healthier if that anchor was, like, work or the gym (which it eventually became) but at the time, it was gaming. I could always count on wanting to grind something, levels, gear, crafting materials, whatever in an RPG game. So no matter how bad it got or seemed to start spiraling, I was like ‘I can anchor to this.’”
As Lennon said, this “anchor” doesn’t have to be gaming, of course, but for many of us, it is. It ends up being the life raft we cling to when we feel like we’re out at sea. Before I had any idea about how to be proactive about my mental health or a notion of what a “healthy coping mechanism” might be, I knew gaming was certainly a place I escaped to when the real world at home, at school, or with friends became too much. It wasn’t conscious, and it’s only now, looking back as an adult, that I can see the way that little-kid me clung to that raft when I needed it, and now, as a grown-up who is much more cognizant of mental health and coping strategies, I do the same thing, just with intention. I can see the reliability, coziness, and security gaming can offer, and I make good use of each, as many of us do. Perhaps nothing but this past year dealing with COVID could have made it even clearer: In a time when our work, our relationships, our safety, and our whole world was in flux, gaming was a constant, a comfort, and a connection. Through the rest of the uncertainty of the past year, gaming was the thing that remained, reliably providing many of those day-to-day comforts and securities we were suddenly missing out on.
But as much as gaming can be a cozy escape, it can just as equally be a place to face new challenges, test yourself, and grow. Lennon explains one theory of how gaming can bolster our sense of achievement. What draws many of us in, Lennon says, is that “there's an established progress of a character, and so it's something that’s in a continual state of movement towards a goal—and that larger goal of ‘progress’ is made up of much smaller goals. Some of these goals are fairly quick and easy, which is good for a nice morale boost." He continues, "But others might require a long bit of kinda mindless grinding, whether you're trying to get mats for crafting professions or fish up a rare fish, and these are kind of my favorite way to relax on a long weekend. I can put on a podcast, do a pretty mindless grind and enjoy a level of progress that’s expectation free.”
If you’re a person like me who often tackles busy days by making lists of every little activity ahead of you, from simple, gimme-type of items like “eat breakfast” to the brain-meltingly awful, like “file taxes,” then you understand the draw of this particular setup. Crossing off the easy items feels good, and it encourages you to go for the difficult ones. It’s a process of building and growing, not unlike questing in World of Warcraft, honestly. The feeling of accomplishment at each step encourages you to keep moving forward, and regardless of whether it’s a pen-and-paper checklist or one generated as part of a game on your computer screen, the boost of confidence it provides can be similarly valuable.
Lennon likens this process to getting a good workout in. He explains that since he’s not a competitive athlete, when he’s at the gym, the progress he makes doesn’t have some huge, over-arching significance. What he does each day is self-contained, and in the end, it only affects him. It “isn't part of some larger expectation," as he puts it, “so there's no pressure. But it's progress, so it feels good.” He surmises that this is comparable to the feeling of advancement and growth that video games can elicit in players. Whether it’s a great workout, an achievement in your favorite hobby, or downing the next raid boss, they all provide a feeling of accomplishment, a boost to morale, and a feeling of being capable of success, and that can mean all the difference in a person’s life.
Lennon adds that this sort of thing can be particularly beneficial to one’s mental health, especially “when it feels like you're spinning your wheels sometimes or watching helplessly as the world backslides.” We discussed in the previous article how this can be especially beneficial during something like COVID. I personally don’t know how I would have coped with the additional time alone at home, with a pause in my career to boot, if I hadn’t had gaming to act as a throughline.
But, as always, gamers are pressured to assess whether they're spending their time wisely. Lisa says that even she has questioned if she’s spent "too much time" gaming, but she has since come to the conclusion that her time in front of a console or a computer has been time well spent. “I have gained so much from those experiences, both personally and professionally," she says, "that it feels inaccurate to say it amounts to nothing.”
It's not only the in-game work that can bring us satisfaction and success, however. In my previous article, I wrote about how Mai has, through gaming, come upon the hobby of refurbishing old Gameboys, and it reminded me of a recent PC Gamer article I read that outlined gamers' relationship with their hardware. The article says that making decisions about and changes to our computer's hardware gives us a sense of control through all the adjustments and modifications we can make. By taking a hands-on approach to the device that brings the games to our fingertips, we can access another rich and rewarding way to get in touch with gaming, and with ourselves.
PC Gamer continues that “PC gaming is a craft we practice. It's a rich hobby with its own traditions, and its own long-running debates (AMD or Nvidia; watercooling or air cooling; Quake or Unreal?). Through the sum of that, PC gaming gives us the choice to be more than passive consumers of entertainment, but active participants in making our own fun.” Louie agrees, saying “if you are a person who at all enjoys gaming and enjoys working with your hands, [he] can’t suggest enough building your own gaming PC.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sense of community and connectedness that games provide can also be fostered through PC building. In the same way that games give us a common thread, so too can troubleshooting our builds—and simply showing them off—bring us to other like-minded communities and people. PC Gamer points out how, through gaming and working on rigs, “our in-game experiences bleed outward into communities, where discussion, troubleshooting, easy file sharing, and organizing on Discord, Reddit, Battle.net, or Tom's Hardware are all an Alt + Tab away.”
Louie has his own take on the value of this hands-on approach to owning and molding your personal gaming experience on the PC. "I can’t think of a more rewarding facet of the gaming industry," he says. "I don’t want to sound dramatic, and I don’t want to be weird, but you learn to understand your machine in ways you never could a console. Your gaming computer begins to take on a personality of its own. And I don’t mean in the obvious ways—I don’t mean the color of fans or the LEDs you picked out—I mean things like design, cable management, chaos or order." Similar to what Lennon said before, like going to the gym or completing a quest, getting the build just right provides its own sense of self-contained accomplishment. "I look at my computer with pride now," Louie says. "Sometimes it can be a reflection of what I am right now, sometimes a reflection of what I want so bad to be, and other times an homage to the person I once was and the road that lead me to where I am today." And the work he puts into this hobby, similar to gaming for many of us, fills in some of the gaps that life might not otherwise be providing at the moment. "When large things are changing in my life (pandemic, business, relationships, etc.), I tend to upgrade aspects of my computer," Louie explains. "Sometimes its as easy as a coolant flush and new colored coolant to reflect something new that I want. Sometimes is hardware, and upgrades (like everyone else, lol) that can reflect the 'gotta have it' aspects of my personality." He recounted an experience where he changed a motherboard "for no reason other than [he] found one that incorporated gear graphics into its design and that design just spoke to [him]." He says the board wasn't cheap, and it wasn't the best on the market either, but it inspired him, gave him something to focus on and build around, and he says that reflects his current journey in life. "At this moment I feel like I am building things gear by gear, and this computer reflects that and reminds me of my mission everyday I look at it."
All in all, gaming has myriad ways to bring value to our lives. Whether it’s making connections or giving us space from all our connections, providing an excuse to rest our tired bodies and minds or pushing us to new challenges, managing complex substitutions or inspiring creativity (whether in the games themselves or on the rigs that we access them through), gaming can be what we need when we need it.
Lisa recounted some of her feelings to me about the importance of gaming and how those feelings have developed over time. "When I was first breaking into the industry,” she says, “I remember joking (with you actually!) that you were ‘doing good and making a difference [through becoming a teacher], and here I was just making video games.’” Lisa continues, “I didn’t actually feel bad about this—having majored in ethics in college, I’d already put a lot of thought into my obligations to the world, and was at peace with the decision to pursue making games for my career—but I did also see it as ‘not doing much good in the world,’ and a somewhat selfish choice.” Over the course of her career, however, Lisa’s feelings evolved, she said she began to think differently. “Games mean a lot to me, and I’m happy to provide that to others,” she says, adding that one of her goals is to make the video game industry a better place for other people. She had an experience recently, however, that really cemented the importance of her work for her:
I’ve always felt happy to provide experiences that others are passionate about, but it didn’t really hit me until I shipped VALORANT (during COVID). Shifting to working from home was really hard, and we had to do it about 3 months before launching the game! We decided not to change our launch date, which initially surprised me and then led to me questioning why, despite how tough things were—but then I thought about how hard and scary everything was at the time (June 2020), and how video games helped me during hard times. I also know that many people use games to connect to others, even though I don’t do this as much personally. Reflecting on this gave me a renewed sense of purpose that made me feel better about making games for a career than I ever have.
It's nice to know that someone behind the games that mean so much to all of us understands their important role in all our lives. Whether gaming for you has always been a solo experience or if it’s the place you’ve made every single one of your friends, whether it’s the place you learned the skills and connections to land your dream job or if it’s the place you go replay your favorite RPG alone and on easy mode for the 100th time, whether it's the place you go to turn your brain off or the place where your brain fires up ready to take on new experiences—if you’re a gamer, you don’t need to be convinced of the value that lies within. For most of us, gaming has been a constant, a refuge, a connection and an escape, and many of us would quite possibly be worse off without the games that have shaped us, been there for us through everything, and been exactly what we needed when we needed them. From formative childhood memories to building new friendships to being a parent and making new memories with your kids today, gaming has been a throughline in many of our lives, and its importance cannot be overstated.
So tell me, what does gaming mean to you?
This is Part Three of a three-part series. Here are parts One and Two.
Need some more fun gaming streams from cool folks? Find Lennon at youtube.com/ChopsTV
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