Video Games And Mental Health (A Tense Relationship)

Michael Hearing

Michael Hearing


Is gaming good for your mental health? The answer, according to scientists, is yes and no. Researchers have always been interested in the relationship between video games and mental health. The research is divided. Some studies claim video games are good for your health while others say it isn’t. Video games and mental health have a complicated relationship. However, video game’s effect on mental health depends on many factors. The biggest one is the reason why people are turning to video games in the first place.

How many people play video games?

Over 3 billion people worldwide play video games. More than 150 million in the U.S. play video games frequently or for at least three hours per week. The amount of time people spend playing has also steadily increased over the years. In 2011, people averaged 5.1 hours of gaming a week. This number had steadily increased to 6.5 hours per week in 2017.

Thousands of new video games are released each year through various gaming platforms, from PC to console. As a result, there are video games for any age, interest, or skill level. Some of the most popular and most played video games in 2020 were Call of Duty: WarzoneMinecraft, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Video game sales continue to increase every year. For example, in 2016, the industry sold more than 24.5 billion games, up from $23.2 billion in 2015 and $21.4 billion in 2014. The global video game industry revenue reached nearly $180 billion in 2020. Some reasons why video games have increased in popularity are the rise of digital-copy games and cross-platform games that aren’t limited to one console.

A photo of gaming setup with the video game Call of Duty: Warzone

Who is playing video games?

Nowadays, it’s not only kids playing video games. The average age of a gamer will increase as the generations who grew up playing video games grow older. In 2020, about 38% of gamers came from the 18 to 34 age demographic. However, the number of people playing video games in the 55 and over age group is 15%. The number of female gamers has also increased, from around 38% in 2006 to 46% in 2019. These increases can give us more data for the correlation between video games and mental health.

Video games and mental health

According to the Mayo Clinic, the definition of mental health is “the overall wellness of how you think, regulate your feelings and behaviors.” Changes in thinking, feeling, or behavior that cause significant distress can be a sign of a possible mental health disorder.

The effects of video games and mental health have been studied over the years. Recently, researchers have sought to examine the connections between video games and mental health more closely due to the rise in popularity. The media and professionals have long warned of the potential dangers of excessive video gaming. Research has focused on the adverse effects of video games and mental health, including addiction, aggression, and depression.

Are video games good for you?

Recent research has found that the correlation between video games and mental health can be therapeutic and beneficial. Social gaming can positively influence well-being, especially when it involves positive cooperation amongst other players.

Other game studies have also shown that video games can positively affect our brain performance and structure. One study found that video game players showed improvements in several types of attention, such as sustained and selective attention. The part of the brain that plays a role in attention is more efficient in gamers than non-gamers.

Video game therapy for mental health

There’s growing evidence that specific custom-designed games can be used in therapy for various mental illnesses such as anxiety and schizophrenia. A Canadian researcher says there’s little good evidence to support the idea that video games are harmful to children or adults.

One study has found that specific video games can be helpful to those struggling with bulimia. Games can have positive effects when it’s used alongside cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Participants who received the video game therapy saw their disease go into partial or full remission. These situations have been positive for video games and mental health.

Mental illness representation in video games

Recently, there has been an increase in the popularity of video games and mental health. One main advantage of video games is that it offers many benefits that movies, books or TV cannot. Gaming is a powerful storytelling platform because players can live vicariously through a game character and are more actively involved in solving their problems. When the game character is enduring mental health problems, gamers can put themselves in the character’s shoes. In contrast, passively watching a TV show doesn’t offer the same benefit. For example, playing a character who has depression will better educate an individual on the disease. It can also create a lasting impression than watching a movie about a person with depression.

couple playing video games

Mental health and gaming

There are a few games where video games and mental health play a large role in the actual game. A game that has mental illness representation is Celeste, a game that explored depression and anxiety. Other examples include Depression QuestHellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and Pry.

So far, independent video game makers have created most video games for mental health. However, large video game publisher EA has recently released a game called Sea of Solitude that has a character struggling with loneliness. The character has to fight monsters that represent her inner thoughts and trauma. The goal of the game is to help the character overcome her grief. Life is Strange, a critically acclaimed adventure game, dealt with difficult themes like suicide and brought up helpful advice.

Other popular games that don’t directly tackle video game and mental health issues, but gamers have found therapeutic, are Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Stardew Valley’s creator has said he received hundreds of messages from people who said the game helped them cope with difficult circumstances. Many who bought Animal Crossing: New Horizons, released amid the coronavirus pandemic, said the game provided a distraction.

Other games to help mental health understanding

Positive effects of video games

three people playing with video games

A recent study by Oxford University suggested a positive connection between mental health and gaming. The Oxford study was the first time a study used real gameplay data. Previous studies focused on self-reported time playing, which is weakly correlated with reality. The study found a link between video games and happiness. Researchers focused on people playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville. They found that those gamers tended to report greater well-being. The university linked up psychological questionnaires with actual records of time spent playing the games. The lead researcher found that you’re much happier if you play about four hours of Animal Crossing per day.

Oxford’s study is one of several that show the positive effects of video games on the brain. There is various other research that shows how video games help mental health.

Can video games help with stress or anxiety?

Many video games help with anxiety. Mindlight, a game incorporating clinical techniques, was designed to reduce anxiety, particularly in at-risk children. In the game, kids have to navigate a haunted house and control the brightness with their minds. Kids wear a headset that monitors the electrical activity in the brain’s area associated with anxiety. The calmer they are, the brighter their surroundings and vice versa. The game’s goal is to teach players to overcome their fears by altering their state of mind.

Research has found that children who played the game decreased their anxiety levels by half. The effects stayed for about six months after they stopped playing the game. Kids could apply the calming techniques they learned with playing the game to real-life anxious situations. The game was as effective at reducing anxiety as typical therapy methods.

Easily accessible and simple games, like those found on mobile phone apps, were shown to improve mood, promote relaxation and ward off anxiety. Video games have also been shown to be useful tools for kids to learn resilience in the face of failure. Emotionally resilient kids are better at adapting to changes in their everyday lives.

Video game therapy for PTSD

A small study found that video games can help veterans overcome mental health issues such as PTSD and substance abuse disorders. The sample size was small and video game effects may vary on the user. Researchers still believe video gameplay can help patients. Playing games may promote a mindfulness-like psychological escape, boost confidence and provide social connection and personal growth.

Some veterans said the video games helped distract them from their symptoms. They also said the games helped with managing moods, relieving stress, and coping with mental illness. The video games also helped the veterans make social connections with other gamers.

Virtual reality games can also help those who have PTSD. Virtual reality is a form of prolonged exposure therapy. It involves patients walking on a treadmill in front of a screen that projects images of the trauma they experienced. This type of treatment can help people confront the source of their fears in a safe environment. The goal is to help reduce their anxiety and fear levels.

Video games that help schizophrenia patients

Video games can help people with schizophrenia control the part of the brain linked to verbal hallucinations. In a small pilot study, patients were asked to play a video game and use their mental strategies to move a computerized rocket. Playing this game helped the patients turn down the volume on the external voices they heard. All study participants found that the voices became less external and more internal. As a result, they were less stressed and better able to cope with the auditory hallucinations.

Although this study on video games and mental health was small, researchers are optimistic that the video game technique can help patients with schizophrenia.

An individual plays a game using virtual reality headset

How can video games help with depression?

Two parts of the brain are hyper-stimulated when people play games. One is the reward pathways, which are associated with motivation and goal-orientation. The other is the hippocampus, the region linked to memory and learning. Playing video games allows us to focus on a goal, and we become more motivated and determined to reach that goal. When we first start playing, we’re still getting a feel of the environment and the gameplay. As we continue to play, we begin learning the game’s ins and outs and slowly master it. This continuous learning process engages our hippocampus.

The two brain regions stimulated when playing video games are the same ones that are under-stimulated in those clinically depressed. This under-stimulation results in feelings of pessimism, lack of motivation and always expecting failure.

Past video game studies have shown a correlation between playing over 20 hours a week and depression. Researchers initially thought this meant video games cause depression. But a more common interpretation is that those who are depressed are playing games to self-medicate. The stigma around video games and mental health might be different than initially thought.

Playing games with a purpose instead of an escapism mindset can help reduce symptoms of depression. It can help build self-confidence and promote social connections.

Are video games bad for you?

While there are many benefits of video games on mental health, there are also negative consequences, particularly when it comes to excessive gaming. The World Health Organization (WHO) classifies video game addiction as a mental health condition where someone puts games above other life activities. This is where video games and mental health is negatively impacted. Video game addiction is also known as a gaming disorder. The negative health effects of video games include negative emotions and attitudes, low self-esteem, poor coping strategies, and loneliness.

The combination of video games and mental health problems can make someone’s situation worse. Studies have found that those with low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression are at a greater risk of gaming addiction. This is especially true when people use games to escape their problems and use them as a form of self-medication. People who use games purely for escapism is more likely to experience the harmful effects of gaming. If your gaming disorder is negatively affecting your life, video game addiction therapy can help. Video games and mental health problems should not be taken lightly.

The relationship between video games and mental health has fascinated scientists. Several studies have been conducted to understand the link between the two. While excessive gaming can potentially lead to addiction, video games’ role in therapy shouldn’t be overlooked.

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