Distraction Free Reading

Video Games, Mental Health, and the Complicated Nature of Playing

A young man wearing large headphones sits in a gaming chair at a PC playing a game in a dark room filled with purple and blue light.

Young man plays Fortnite at a gaming competition CC BY-SA 4.0

He melted into the shadows, pressing the ‘E’ key on his keyboard, activating his stealth skill, allowing his form to vanish into the grass around him and making him invisible to his prey. A short distance away, in the dense forest tree line, a group of adventurers waited for the established sign: a flare! That flare marked that the cloaked figure had achieved his task of poisoning the nearby camp’s healing pool, a vital resource in this war against their enemy.  For many of these participants, video games are mechanisms that bring them together digitally, often forming a bond that lasts for many years.

The scene above is familiar to many, including myself. In fact, the spirit of gaming is something I have lived since I was young. Perhaps it was my early involvement in video games that guided me to consider them as a professional. As a mental health professional with a background in anthropology, I have long been interested in the intersection of video games and mental health. Over the past 15 years, my interest has been framed by my clinical experiences as a therapist. As part of my wider conversation about video games and mental health, I hold a weekly online forum about mental health depictions in video games and then mental health among gamers. While games are often demonized for their association with addiction and violence, I find that some of the things that help link video games to negative associations also have the opportunity to help address some people’s social and mental health concerns.

 The Perceived Danger of Video Games

Are video games dangerous? Are there reasons to be concerned? Western media is often rife with negative depictions of video games. Video games are often characterized as juvenile and because they are often called games they have a propensity to get characterized as something minor, fun, and frivolous – something solely for kids. Additionally, video games get painted by the media as a harbinger of addiction and violence. While links with violence may be tenuous, and often serve as an easy scapegoat for other social concerns, one of my concerns about video games emerges from their potential for behavioral addiction.

Unlike drugs or alcohol, the concept of video game addiction remains controversial. Because video games are embedded in biosocial behaviors, video game addiction provides a more overt way to explore concepts of addiction beyond the more traditionally chemically oriented addictions. Psychologically, the work of behavioral addictions rests on Old and Milner’s work on positive stimulation. Their research leads the paradigm of behavioral addiction today and suggests that the dopamine response associated with positive repetitive stimuli encourages the continuation of behavior. Perhaps because of its edge status as an addiction, video game addiction lends itself more to understanding the social and cultural realities that help push a small number of people to continue playing beyond healthy parameters. In my professional life, I have seen this situation in action, working with parents who are so preoccupied with video games they lock their kids in another room so as not to disturb the parents’ play time. I have also worked with people who have admitted to missing work so as to play their game of choice for over 40 hours straight.

Building Games that Way…

My concerns about video games reside not with their potential for abuse, but the role that video game developers have played in building games that specifically target the human predilection towards repetitive positive stimulation. Because they are savvy about human behavior and human psychology, many gaming companies specifically focus on creating game mechanics that stimulate a dopamine response that humans crave, where hitting a magic lever garners a reward.  Not only does the construction of these games (with achievements, levels, rewards) engage players, but it also attempts to keep them enmeshed.

In particular, some game-makers have taken to adopting aspects from another type of addiction – gambling. In fact, several governments around the world recently classified the game mechanic known as “Loot boxes” or “Loot crates” as a form of predatory behavior created to mimic gambling. For example, Alex Hern and Rob Davies suggest  that specific “…in-game features are ‘designed to exploit potent psychological mechanisms associated with … gambling-like behaviors.” Even beyond the video games themselves, more tech companies have attempted to adopt the concept of gamification as a form of social control – a way to keep people doing specific desired behaviors. Additionally, when companies build addictive behaviors into video games and gamifying non-games well, it helps establish a customer base who will find it more difficult to leave.

The Social Nature of Gaming

While my exposure to people’s difficulties with gaming is different than most, I have seen the ways that video games can create or escalate mental health problems. Of course, many different activities can become a concern, gaming included, if one’s social life and physical health are compromised by one’s participation. However, equally difficult for some gamers, is the fact that the game is their social life. Being part of a community is the addictive piece of the game, and socialization reinforces people’s desire to continue playing.

Like games themselves, which are often minimized as merely “games,” the value of online social experiences is also often minimized. Online sociality is frequently separated from the “real world.” Much in the same way that built-in game mechanisms provide an additional pull on gamers, online game communities help keep people playing. After all, building opportunities for sociality is an aspect of gamification. However, unlike the endless levels and bags of loot, I see the social nature of gaming as having the potential for genuine good in people’s lives . Much like Gray and Huang (2015) suggestion that: “While there may be some indications that the nature of these communities leads some people to participate in sometimes unhealthy means, only examining the number of hours that an individual engages in these virtual communities seriously diminishes the value of those activities especially to the user.” Therefore, sociality within games is something that can have both positive and negative impacts on mental health (Snodgrass, et. al. 2017).

While there is certainly more to be unpacked related to the social nature of gaming to encourage game loyalty, the less cynical part of me is reminded of the ways that online gaming provides people meaningful community. The interactions in these communities supply social support often unavailable in person. Online gaming communities come together to celebrate the life of someone passing by providing gifts and cards to their loved ones or holding a digital memorial to remember their fallen comrades, such as ‘VileRat’ from EVE online. In my time gaming, I have witnessed many of the communal aspects of regular life: dating, marriage, divorce, illness, dying. If social supports remain one of the most important aspects of positive mental health and this is where the influence of online gaming can be seen in a positive way.

An (Un)comfortable Status Quo

I have a complicated relationship with video games. Professionally, I see and understand the ways that the games are manufactured to entice, even manipulate, but also personally, I genuinely enjoy playing them. During my weekly online conversations with gamers, the general consensus is that video games have improved their mental health. They describe them as a way to relax. Gaming provides players a sort of therapy, both through the simple distraction/diversion for the ‘single player’ experience to the commiseration and empathy often provided by social groups in online gaming communities.

Gaming can be wonderful. It provides a universe where people can escape their daily lives and become a shop keeper, a tavern owner, a fighter pilot in World War II, or a speedy hedgehog.  Online games provide a home where people can connect and create social bonds beyond physical locations. As consumer items, positive and negative ramifications exist. Therefore, it is not surprising that the social reality of video games and their potential addictive qualities is much more complicated than would first appear.

Works Cited:

Snodgrass, Jeffrey, G. H.J. Francois Dengah II, Michael G. Lacy, Andrew Bagwell, Max Van Oostenburg, and Daniel Lende. 2017. “Online gaming involvement and its positive and negative consequences: A cognitive anthropological “cultural consensus” approach to psychiatric measurement and assessment” Computers in Human Behavior. 66: 291 -302.

Gray, Kishonna and Wanju Huang. 2015. “More than addiction: Examining the role of anonymity, endless narrative, and socialization in prolonged gaming and instant messaging practices.” Journal of Comparative Research in Anthropology and Sociology. 6, no. 1 (Summer): 133 – 147.

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