Video games can be good for mental health

THE Covid-19 lockdowns have boosted user engagement with video games around the world. Being an avid gamer myself, I can attest to this as I have been spending numerous hours on my console and PC.

Many gaming companies and platforms have seen their revenues increase during the pandemic.

In Australia, in the same week that social distancing rules were announced (March 16 to March 22), the sales of game consoles and games increased by 285.6% and 278.5% respectively.

There is a suggestion that the growth of gaming during the pandemic hasn’t just been because people wanted more entertainment, but rather wanted more interpersonal interaction.

The top five most downloaded games during the lockdown all support a multiplayer experience.

In China, eight out of 10 of the fastest growing video games are also online games that allow multiple players to play simultaneously.

Self-Determination Theory posits three basic psychological needs for people’s mental well-being: autonomy (feeling able to make choices, act in accordance with individual values, and pursue meaningful goals); competence (feeling effective and capable of overcoming problems); and relatedness (feeling connected to others).

Satisfying these basic psychological needs leads to greater well-being and motivation.

Conversely, when these needs are frustrated (such as by home confinement and “social distancing” of lockdown and intensification of passive surveillance) there may be negative effects.

Video games have potential to satisfy these psychological needs during the Covid-19 crisis.

Research shows games help facilitate a sense of autonomy by giving players a sense of being free to make choices and, depending on the game, provide a meaningful narrative for completing tasks.

Well-designed games facilitate a feeling of competence by presenting challenges that are neither too hard or too easy to achieve and imbue a sense of reward by finishing designed tasks.

Players also get a sense of progress and achievability while they play a game.

Games also offer a sense of relatedness as gamers can play with friends, or even a stranger online (with whom you may be battling a common enemy or completing a same task together).

Gamers can also feel a sense of relatedness with the virtual characters in the game and with the game world itself. Identifying closely with a character and their situation motivates players to help the character, and, when the character succeeds in achieving tasks, enhances their sense of competence.

Some games have been developed specifically to promote mental well-being during the pandemic. For example, a game called Shadow’s Edge aimed to help players cope with isolation and fear, using empirical and theory-based foundations like narrative therapy and artistic expression to enable players to save a city destroyed by a storm.

Such games are known as “functional games”.

In conclusion, video games are a popular medium with potential to help people cope psychologically with many of the adverse aspects of the Covid-19 crisis.

Game providers can take steps to protect players’ health and players should be aware of the need for moderation to keep themselves safe and healthy.

R. Murali Rajaratenam is senior lecturer at Faculty of University Foundation Studies, HELP Matriculation Centre.