Gaming is more social and educational than previously thought
It has long been thought that gaming is addictive to young people and that it makes them aggressive. Behavioural scientist Joanneke Weerdmeester has shown that reality is far from being that bad. Gaming can make young people more social, and it can even help them overcome depression and anxiety, among other things.
Play is an important part of development. Children learn to discover themselves and the world through play. Play stimulates problem-solving skills, creativity and the regulation of emotions, and children learn important social skills, such as cooperation and conflict resolution (Yogman et al., 2018).
However, play is increasingly digital nowadays. Figures from the Netherlands show that around 38% of primary school children and 33% of secondary school children play video games on a daily basis (Rombouts et al., 2020).
They play action and shooter games (Overwatch and Fortnite), games with grandiose and immersive fantasy worlds (Breath of the Wild), creative games (Minecraft), challenging puzzle games (Portal); horror games (e.g. Phasmophobia), and sports and dance games (Nintendo Switch Sports and Just Dance). Increasing numbers of games are being made that address challenging themes, like loss and grief (Gris, Spiritfarer and That Dragon Cancer), anxiety (Celeste) and even psychosis (Hellblade, Senua’s Sacrifice).
So gaming is a popular past time. But do we really know what playing video games does to our mental health?
Concerns about aggression and gaming addiction
For a long time, particular attention was paid to the potential negative effects of games, such as the risk of addiction and aggression. In fairness, results from early studies seemed to indicate a potential link between violent games and aggression (Anderson et al., 2010).
Since these results were published, however, there has been a lot of criticism about the quality of the research methods used in these early studies (Ferguson, 2015). Results from recent studies show that there is no strong evidence that playing violent video games really leads to real-world aggression or violent behaviour (Johannes et al., 2022; Przybylski & Weinstein, 2019).
Alongside worries about the influence of violent video games, there were and still are concerns about addiction. ‘Gaming disorder’ was included in the WHO’s international list of diseases in 2018. This classification offered a lifeline for clinicians looking to provide insured care to patients seeking help for their gaming-related behaviour. However, again, there was criticism from the scientific community (Aarseth et al., 2017).
Researchers have indicated that the evidence the decision was based on was of low quality (Van Rooij et al., 2018). They argued that not enough research had been done to separate healthy and problematic gaming behaviours. This could lead to an unnecessary stigma being attached to gaming (Colder Carras et al., 2018).
There does seem to be a group of young people who exhibit problematic gaming-related behaviour, but this is a relatively small percentage (3%) (Boer et al., 2022). Moreover, problematic gaming behaviour is almost never an isolated problem, but it often occurs in combination with other psychosocial problems (Van Rooij et al., 2019). Gaming is a positive hobby for most.
Gaming has a lot of positives
Increasing attention is being paid to the potential positive effects of video games, as previously published on this website. These became more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic when games were commonly used to escape from daily stresses. Online games also proved to be a valuable way to keep in contact with other people (Barr & Copeland-Stewart, 2021).
Research shows that playing video games can have several positive effects (Granic et al., 2014; Hallbrook et al, 2019). People experience positive emotions while gaming and it can improve mood. Gaming can also support cognitive skills, including information processing and problem-solving. Shooting games can positively affect spatial awareness and attention.
Many video games are social in nature. The most popular PC and console games among young people are almost all games played with others (Tuijnman & Van Rooij, 2021). Online games are used to build or maintain friendships (Kowert & Oldmeadow, 2015). Gaming can also encourage cooperation and empathy (Harrington & O'Connel, 2016). Even violent video games can positively affect pro-social behaviour when played cooperatively (Shoshani & Krauskopf, 2021).
Using video games as therapy
Games are increasingly being used to support young people’s mental health. Games have been developed for depression (Fleming et al. 2021), anxiety and stress regulation (Schoneveld et al., 2018), and to support young people with ADHD (Kollins et al., 2020).
Using video games to support therapy has a number of benefits (Granic et al., 2014). One of the most significant is motivation. Video games are considered fun, while therapy is mostly seen as boring and didactic. In addition, games provide an excellent context to practise new skills. They provide immediate and mostly positive feedback, and they encourage perseverance by matching the level of challenge with the player’s current skill level.
Games can make therapy more accessible too. Young people can practise at home, which can ease any waiting times. In addition, offering therapy as a game can reduce the threshold for young people who find it difficult to seek help.
In short, it is becoming increasingly clear what the potential risks of video games are, but more importantly, that they can support our wellbeing in a meaningful way. Gaming facilitates social contact and can greatly help address mental health issues in an effective and accessible way.