If you grew up playing video games, you probably grew up hearing about how they were bad for you in some way. That they would somehow stunt your psychological development or make you violent. On the most extreme end of this, video games have often been a scapegoat for school shootings and other acts of extreme violence.
However, new research from the University of Saskatchewan reveals that gaming is actually good for you on a number of levels. In fact, Dr. Regan Mandryk, a computer science professor (pictured above) who led the study, believes gaming can reduce stress and promote mental health.
To understand why, we must understand some of the common myths regarding video games and how these findings bust those myths wide open.
The spectre of online negativity
Much of modern gaming now focuses on online play in some form or another. And because of this, video games often fall under the spectre of toxic online negativity.
Numerous researchers have tried to understand why so many people seem to lose their sense of empathy when they interact online. Think of places like internet comment sections that quickly descend into toxic behavior!
While it’s true that the early days of online consoles had virtual rooms full of strangers screaming at each other, things are much calmer now. Gamers largely stick to communicating with those in their friends list, especially when gaming during social isolation.
Because online interactions largely center on your friends list, it’s easier for gaming to be a safer space than other places online.
Video games and isolation
Video games have a long and undeserved reputation for isolating players. It all goes back to the stereotype of the lonely gamer playing in a dark basement instead of going outside and interacting with others.
However, COVID-19 forced people all around the world to enter into social isolation. Suddenly, going outside and interacting with people was no longer a safe option. Because of this, an increasing number of consumers turned to video games as escapist fun.
And that’s when online players discovered for themselves what Mandryk’s research confirmed: gaming is actually a safe and healthy way to interact with others. Whether you’re dealing with a global pandemic or not, gaming is an awesome way to reduce stress and boost mental health.
Why is that? We’ve got a breakdown of Mandryk’s conclusions ahead.
In Mandryk’s estimation, the real secret sauce of games reducing stress has to do with cooperative play. In games like Fortnite, players must coordinate with other gamers in order to accomplish a shared goal.
For however long you play, you are going to focus on those goals in a relatively friendly and supportive environment. This can help you make new friends and deepen your existing relationships.
You might say it’s the best of both worlds. That’s because you get all the benefits of socialization as well as all the benefits of escapism.
The power of escapism
A large part of why games are great for stress relief is that they serve as simple escapism. It’s similar to losing yourself in a really good movie or TV show. Whatever the activity, you are now focusing more on the escapism and less on feelings of negativity.
This is where that goal-oriented gameplay comes in again. While psychological detachment is a feature of escapism, you don’t want to stay too detached, especially for long periods of time. With video games, you get short bursts of escapist distraction while you play. That’s why Mandryk refers to this as only “a little bit of psychological detachment.”
A sense of control
Riddle me this: what is both a cause and a symptom of stress? Feeling like you have no control.
We often stress about things that we can’t control. And feeling like you can’t take control of your life merely creates more stress. Fortunately, this is where video games come in.
When you are playing a video game, Mandryk says that “you feel like you’re mastering challenges and it helps you feel like you have control over your environment.” Your character is an extension of you, and by taking control of their life, you’ll feel like you’re taking control of your own.
This basic idea is why so many people clean their homes instead of tackling their homework or completing a major project. Focusing on what you can control is better than feeling helpless. And let’s face it: playing games is a lot more fun than cleaning your room!
Multitasking and socialization
Obviously, Mandryk’s research occurred during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. And this led to some interesting insight into how people communicate with each other.
For example, Mandryk noted that children have difficulty simply talking to one another over Zoom or other platforms. “It’s very hard for them to sit down in front of a video chat window and have a conversation.” This is why most children like to play together as they talk: a mutual fun activity makes socialization easier.
Believe it or not, it’s the same for many adults. If you’re not excited about hanging out in virtual parties with your friends during social isolation, you may enjoy chatting with them while you all try to come out on top in the next round of Overwatch.
Of course, no stress solution is perfect. Not even video games! And Mandryk admitted that the research team didn’t know if all of these psychological benefits of video games would continue providing major gains.
In other words, the people who experienced a serious stress reduction in 2020 when they took up gaming may not get the same results a year later. Then again, after a year of stress reduction, they’ll have that much less stress to deal with!
Perfectly balanced (as all things should be)
Mandryk’s conclusions included some advice that you can apply to pretty much any hobby. It all comes down to living a balanced life. Or, as Mandryk puts it, “As long as you’re not replacing all those other things that we know are also good for you like exercise, fresh air, talking to others, I don’t think we should be worried about how much time we’re spending on them.”
Video games, like any other hobby, are only a problem if they are getting in the way of you leading a happy and fulfilled life. Otherwise, they are a fun distraction that will reduce your stress and improve your mental health, and that’s a hell of a combination!