It’s been a huge year for video games. With the world confined to various lockdown measures, it didn’t take long for screen time to surge 75%, as games like idyllic-sim Animal Crossing and space-sleuth Among Us became cultural touchstones. We spend over 3 billion hours a week logging in to play online video games, and with Sony and Microsoft struggling to meet demand for next-gen consoles, one question still polarises online commentary: Are video games good for your mental health?
In light of the recent spike in screen time, we thought we’d take a look at some recent studies suggesting that gaming can improve your problem-solving capacity and general well-being.
So game on, noobs!
One of the latest studies relating to video games and mental health comes from Oxford University. Utilising actual gameplay data for the first time in history (previously, surveys asked gamers to self-report, leading to unreliable data), Oxford researchers loaded-up lockdown MVP Animal Crossing and third-person shooter Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville. The research team at Oxford found that those spending dedicated hours gaming reported a greater sense of well-being. In particular, gamers responded to the sense of freedom and personal connection elicited while playing video games – a fundamental sentiment given the nature of widespread lockdown.
Animal Crossing, via Instagram @brooonooow
It’s a notion backed-up by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) paper, ‘The Benefits of Playing Video Games.’ Upending the stereotype of the emaciated, alienated gamer wasting away in their parent’s basement, the APA suggested that these ‘virtual communities’ (more than 70% of gamers play online) built by games like World of Warcraft and Animal Crossing are a way to participate socially whilst presenting problems reflective of the real world: Leadership, trust, trade and teamwork all need to function well for a successful team or community.
Unravelling these complex, in-game problems served up to gamers to pay-off dividends in the long run.
As noted by game developer and researcher Jane McGonigal in her TedTalk, video games provide a unique experience in that you are repeatedly learning from your mistakes. In fact, gamers spend around 80% of their time failing. For this reason, introducing children to video games at a younger age (particular genres like role-playing games) can help bolster problem-solving skills and build important emotional resilience later during grade school.
Even first-person shooters – often derided for their violent content – present interesting outcomes in relation to spatial awareness. Again expounded by the APA, the idea is that gamers are more aware of their three-dimensional space than their off-screen neighbours. If this is the case, then exposing children to video games at a younger age may actually help them get a leg-up in careers where spatial cognizance is of high value (like engineering, for instance).
More and more, teachers and education systems are integrating video games into their classrooms. Similarly, physicians are beginning to utilise video games to help aid recovery. For example, in the video game ‘Re-Mission’, patients assume control of a tiny robot that eliminates cancer cells and fights bacterial infections. In 2008, a study citing 34 medical centers reported that patients playing the ‘Re-Mission’ showed more of a willingness to undergo treatment than those playing other video games.
‘It is this same kind of transformation, based on the foundational principle of play, that we suggest has the potential to transform the field of mental health,’ writes Isabela Granic, author of the ‘The Benefits of Playing Video Games.’
These ‘foundational principles of play’ elicited by video games have proved a fundamental source of escapism in a year testing the emotional fortitude of millions. Physical distancing super-charged our online connections and alter-egos, not only alleviating mental stress, but also building our capacity to solve problems in imaginative ways.
So maybe it’s time to stop viewing video games as a guilty pleasure and start seeing them for their very real potential to yield real-world benefits.
Now, if you will excuse us, it’s back to trading turnips on the Stalk Market…
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