How Gaming Has Impacted My Mental Health
Gaming is still a hot topic among some of the circles I’m in. To be clear, these circles I roll in include the parent pick-up line and soccer sidelines.
When talking with other parents and guardians, when I share that I’ve co-founded a company in the gaming industry, the questions inevitably start.
“What games do you let your kids play?”
“How long should I let my kids play at one time?” and my personal favorite, “No offense, but isn’t gaming, like, bad for you?”
The concerns that I hear reveal what seems to be a consistent attitude toward gaming - gaming isn’t wrong necessarily…but it can’t possibly be good for you.
Gamers and those in the industry know that games are multi-faceted, and there are certainly times when gaming communities grow toxic and can have negative effects on their participants. As the research continues to emerge, it’s clear that there are some ways that gaming can actually positively impact gamers.
Thinking about self-determination theory
A popular theory in psychology called self-determination theory asserts that people have the psychological need for autonomy, relatedness, and competence.
This can apply across a variety of domains in our lives, including gaming, and when these needs are met, people feel better. Gamers have known this for years - that playing video games makes them feel better. As researchers continue to study the impact video games have on players, it’s clear that there can be mental health benefits.
As a lifelong gamer (with a hiatus during early adulthood due to launching a career, getting married, and having children), I can honestly say that regular gaming has long been a part of how I manage my stress and self-regulate. I wanted to share a few ways I’ve seen playing video games tangibly benefit my mental well-being.
#5 Gaming helps me unwind after a busy day.
Between having a family and being a founder of a young company, my days are packed from the moment I wake up to when I finally decide I’ve hit a stopping point for the evening. Setting aside some time to play a game with my kids, my husband, or even solo helps me not take things too seriously and unwind for a bit.
The life of an entrepreneur can be unpredictable, and having a safe space to create my own space, design my farm, and hone my fishing skills in Stardew Valley helps me bounce back after a challenging day. I love the feeling of learning something new or gaining a skill, and video games have allowed me to step outside of my comfort zone to do this.
Gaming doesn’t take the place of exercising or eating well, but it’s an engaging activity that can be done in addition to other healthy habits.
#4 Games cause me to feel delighted.
I’ve always had a type A personality, and sometimes I take things too seriously. Playing games regularly has helped me grow in this area.
Checking my ego to have some fun
Celeste is a popular platformer game known for both its difficulty and for how it approaches the topic of mental health. I picked up this game a few months ago, and honestly, I struggled. Working through this game, even with the Assist Mode turned on, helped me take my time to learn the game, relax, and enjoy myself while playing it.
I had to lean into growth mindset strategies and commit to the challenge in order to work through this game. Candidly, I’m still working my way through it, but I’m doing it in my own time and remembering that I don’t have to be perfect. Playing it on Assist Mode doesn’t make me less of a gamer, even though I initially felt bad about it. I don’t have to be so serious about something designed to be fun.
Ori & My Feels
The art style and narrative of Ori and the Will of the Wisps made me feel endeared toward the vulnerable Ori. I felt a protective instinct toward this pretend creature, and my emotions were so complex as Ori journeyed to heal Ku. I can honestly describe the experience as cathartic and very fun.
#3 Games help me work on problem solving.
Like many of you, I have to make a lot of decisions in a day. Playing video games allows me to make decisions in a space where I know that the consequences won’t impact my real life. I try new things, take risks, and even get creative with how I approach the problems I face while playing.
I love to play mobile games based on some of my favorite board games. Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan are two of my favorite games to play on mobile. Because the gameplay is faster than when playing on tabletop, I can experiment with different approaches and try new ways to outsmart my opponents.
I’ve had a great time watching my husband and daughter navigate Hyrule and complete the numerous quests on Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. I love seeing the sense of accomplishment in both of them when they solve another shrine puzzle.
#2 Gaming provides a temporary distraction from daily stressors.
After a long day with several small decisions and even a few large decisions still to make, sometimes I just need to solve a smaller problem in order to solve a larger problem.
Getting away mentally allows me to work a different side of my brain. What often happens is that I end up gaining clarity on whatever big problem I needed to solve all while solving small problems, puzzles, and quests while gaming.
Respite during the pandemic
I’m not suggesting that avoiding your problems is healthy or a good long-term solution. But, gaming can help provide reprieve in some ways. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, I found myself wired and disengaged all at once. My husband and I had been talking about retro PC games, and I pulled out my phone to see if Rollercoaster Tycoon was available.
Equally as overjoyed as I was as a tween, I downloaded it and began playing. Almost immediately, I started feeling more relaxed. Finally, I had something else to focus on besides doom, gloom, and my Zoom calendar.
#1 Gaming has given me a restored sense of relatedness.
As mentioned before, games can help players feel a sense of relatedness. While many gamers choose to play online with others, I’ve found the most joy from playing video games with my kids. Introducing them to new versions of games I played as a kid allows us to relate to one another and enjoy the way these games have evolved over time.
Video games provide a profound sense of connection across generations. Nostalgic gamers who remember playing the original Super Mario on NES can connect with young gamers connecting for the first time with the beloved plumber on a quest to save Peach in Super Mario Odyssey.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has experienced a number of positive benefits when it comes to gaming. The positive things I’ve experienced don’t mean that video games and the surrounding communities are perfect. However, these positives show why it’s worth continuing to research games and strive to make them intentionally better.
Let’s keep the conversation going about the good things that games can do.
Frank, A. (2018, January 26). Celeste is hard, but its creators are smart about difficulty. Polygon. https://www.polygon.com/2018/1/26/16935964/celeste-difficulty-assist-mode
Kowert, R., & Kilmer, E. (n.d.). Toxic gamers are alienating your core demographic - takethis.org. Take This. https://www.takethis.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/08/ToxicGamersBottomLineReport_TakeThis.pdf
Self-Determination Theory. Self-Determination Theory of Motivation - Center for Community Health & Prevention - University of Rochester Medical Center. (n.d.). https://www.urmc.rochester.edu/community-health/patient-care/self-determination-theory.aspx
Yee, A. Z. H., & Sng, J. R. H. (2022, February 24). Animal crossing and covid-19: A qualitative study examining how video games satisfy basic psychological needs during the pandemic. Frontiers. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.800683/full