Gaming for good: How it can boost mental health and social connection

Too often seen as a path to pent-up frustration and aggression, video gaming might actually be good for your mental health. Here’s how.

Much has been made of the potential for video gaming to become an addiction or source of stress when you fail to level up.

Despite a minority of gamers suffering from disordered gaming (an inability to stop playing that impacts relationships, school, work and sleep), the state of play is shifting and there is growing evidence to suggest certain types of games may help alleviate mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

The Bond University Digital Australia 2022 report found 17 million Australians play computer games across their various forms, and 36 per cent of gamers had made friends from the hobby.

Those who play spend an average of 83 minutes on the activity per day.

So, with all this time spent in a virtual wonderland, how do we ensure we are doing more help than harm to our health and wellbeing?

How video games can improve mental health

In a 2018 study, video games were found to aid in the recovery of some war veterans experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Many participants in the study felt aspects of their lives such as social connectedness, mood regulation and self-confidence improved through their game play, although some veterans did also respond that they felt play was isolating.

A study published by the Games for Health Journal in 2020 concluded casual games (fun, simple games that can be played in short bursts, such as Tetris, Bejeweled and Candy Crush) have the potential to relieve stress, anxiety and depression.

How risky are video games?

Professor Daniel Johnson from the School of Computer Science at Queensland University of Technology says playing video games is generally not a worry for most people.

“There’s a very small percentage of people for whom video games can become problematic,” Prof Johnson says.

“Around 0.5 per cent of players may experience some negative effects related to video game play at some point in their lives.”

Victoria University senior lecturer of clinical psychology Dr Vasileios Stavropoulos says the effects of playing games can vary depending on three factors — who the player is, the form of the game and its environment, and what else is going on in the gamer’s life and surroundings.

Gaming can help social connection

A positive effect seen in recent years has seen many people using online games to help alleviate social isolation.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, many people transferred their needs to socialise, communicate and engage in a meaningful experience into game worlds, and these people presented to have reduced anxiety and reduced levels of distress,” Dr Stavropoulos says.

He says individuals who feel these kinds of benefits from playing digital games can derive a real sense of belonging, purpose, identity and a comforting feeling that they matter from their game play.

“They are beneficial to some users, to the extent that they provide them meaning through the world of the game,” he says.

Written by Rebecca Douglas.