The Mental vs. The Virtual – Video Gaming’s Fight Against Mental Health
This week marks Mental Health Awareness week in the UK, an increasingly important time to spread awareness, educate and ultimately offer support to all currently struggling with the country’s second most prominent health issue.
According to Mind.org, across England, 1 in 4 experience some kind of mental health challenge each year. In any given week 6 in 100 suffer with anxiety and 3 in 100 have depression, while 1 in 5 will experience suicidal thoughts within their lifetime and 1 in 15 will attempt to take their life. And that’s before you consider the vast array of other conditions spanning OCD to PTSD that all in all incurred an economic and social cost of £119bn in 2019.
They are shocking numbers and ones that were on the rise even before the isolation brought on by COVID-19, but from the doom and gloom and amongst all the fantastic efforts the UK’s health services undertake to tackle the crisis and support those affected, there is one surprising activity that people are turning to.
Sceptics out there might question how a supposed solo experience like gaming can help alleviate feelings of loneliness or depression. Well that’s because gaming can be anything but solo. In younger generations, where 2.7% of 11 – 16-year olds meet the clinical criteria for depression and 7.5% have been diagnosed with anxiety, 77% will play online video games with friends at least once a month. Globally, 38% of gamers play to have fun with people they know and 21% play to share moments with other players. Even if people aren’t in the same room, video gaming provides a social space that facilitates connections across countries and borders.
So how can video games help tackle the mental health crisis? First there is the overt, the direct attempts the industry is taking to make a difference. Like the immersive DEEP-VR experience that took players on a journey through an underwater environment whilst teaching them to combat symptoms of stress and anxiety through breathing controlled movement. Or VR based exposure therapy particular prevalent in the treatment of PTSD amongst the military. Patients repeatedly relive traumatising situations within the safety of a game world until the experience no longer affects them. Finally, SPARX, the game specifically designed to combat depression through cognitive behavioural therapy. Here players created an avatar and set out to defeat GNATs, enemies embodying the acronym Gloomy, Negative, Automatic Thoughts, learning along the way that these types of thoughts can be removed. In the results, 44% of SPARX players recovered from depression, ahead of the 26% of patients in treatment and 66% saw symptoms reduce 30% or more, compared to 58% of treatment patients.
But as impressive as those innovations have been, they weren’t the inspiration behind this article. Instead, the goal was to highlight how everyday gaming, simply the act of picking up a controller at home or turning on your mobile on your commute, can help everyday people.
In a study by Professor Andy Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, he found that experiences and social connection with others through play could contribute to someone’s well-being and in fact, people who took enjoyment from video games were more likely to report experiencing positive wellbeing. Similarly, psychologist Brian Sutton-Smith concluded people were more confident, energetic and emotionally positive when they play.
According to Bradley University, gaming allows players to feel unencumbered by normal daily pressure as they are, for those moments, transported away and immersed in another world where they are in control and the stresses of everyday life are forgotten. A study from a doctoral student of the University of Central Florida had participants engage in a mundane computer-based task while their stress levels and cognitive performance were monitored. Halfway through they were given a five-minute break where they could choose either to sit quietly, take part in a guided relaxation activity or play a video game. The results and subsequent interviews showed following the break that those who sat quietly were less engaged in the task, causing them stress. Those that chose the relaxation activity felt a small stress reduction. But those who played the video game felt better, more alert and could complete the task stress free.
To take this beyond stress, to arguably the more damaging manifestations of mental health, an East Carolina University study found playing video games for 30 minutes a day, even just on your mobile, could help alleviate clinical depression and anxiety, not just for that day but for the whole month and at levels rivalling clinical medication.
To support, another study of UK gamers found 55% aged 18 to 30 reported games helped their mental state. As many as 47% said games helped them see their lives in a more positive light and 25% said gaming helped them solve mental health issues or concerns.
The belief in gaming’s ability to aid these issues is now so widespread that the World Health Organisation launched #PlayApartTogether in partnership with the video game industry during the 2020 pandemic, encouraging players to socialise online for in-game rewards. This marked a huge change of heart from an organisation that 12 months prior had labelled ‘gaming disorder’ as an illness that could be treated.
Gaming is regularly misunderstood and stereotyped. If playing solo, how can isolating yourself be good? If playing online, how can these connections replace true, in-person interaction? Well the truth is there are direct social and psychological benefits to be found in these virtual spaces. At a base level, overcoming challenges, confronting uncomfortable feelings (the latest Resident Evil horror title just released) and practicing stress management are everyday components of achieving in video games. The positive reinforcement and feedback loop of overcoming obstacles can be endless. That’s before you consider the immersive experience gaming provides, the opportunity to leave your real-world troubles behind and lose yourself somewhere else, a positive often attached to cinema.
But don’t just take it from me, take it from the people tackling these mental health challenges every day. As one gamer put it:
“Gaming allowed me to reach out and talk to people from all over the world in similar situations to myself, many of whom were also experiencing physical and mental health problems; it allowed me to share my experiences and life with them in a real and meaningful way; it allowed me to find a place where I could take my mind off of negative thoughts and emotions; it allowed me to focus on a simple goal and set about achieving it. The gaming experience and community became my therapy at the point when I needed it the most.”