A recent poll taken by the nonprofit health-policy organization Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that nearly half (45 percent) of adults in the United States say stress and worry surrounding COVID-19 has had negative implications for their mental health. And clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD—who's been studying other mental health experts' research on the brain benefits of video games for years—believes that video games, particularly popular titles like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley, are poised to help us deal with the unprecedented mental toll of the pandemic.
"People are using video games to cope with loneliness, depression, anxiety, and even potentially addictions," she says. "Video games take up so much of your attention that they can push your anxieties away for a while. They can give you a break from it."
"Video games take up so much of your attention that they can push your anxieties away for a while. They can give you a break from it." —psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD
Of course, not everyone sees video games as an outlet for anxiety. Like any kind of media that can serve an escapist role—whether that be television, audiobooks, podcasts, or beyond—there's a wide range of gaming content available that runs the gamut from whimsical to meditative to downright violent.
Even though many video games like Animal Crossing and Flower (in which the player acts as the wind and propels flower petals through the air) can be deeply soothing, Dr. Daramus points out that violent video games like Manhunt or Thrill Kill tend to get more coverage in the mainstream media, given studies—like this one—linking them with aggression. For another example, a 2018 study of 17,000 kids connected violent gameplay to aggression, and a year later, in the wake of two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, President Trump blamed video games for violent behaviors in America.
Of course, as a society, we have a responsibility to consider those distressing findings before cosigning a gaming practice of any kind, it's also true that we're not seeing the full story. For years, researchers have been linking beneficial effects to video-game play, too. For instance, video games have been found to improve mood, reduce stress and anxiety, and institute a state of calm—gains that are particularly noteworthy in pandemic conditions, when many are fighting low moods, spiked worry, and psychological unrest.
Without discounting valid concerns and scientific findings about video-games' effect on safety, Dr. Daramus says we would be wise to consider how the activity can be used as a tool for mental-health positivity. "We need to rethink how people use gaming and get away from the idea that gaming is automatically bad," she says. "Let's see how we're using gaming, and how can we use it in a different way so that it actually is doing something good." Right now, countless people quarantining are doing just that.
Why video games may boost your mental-health right now
Upon its release on March 20, Animal Crossing New Horizons sold more in its first three days than any other Animal Crossing or Nintendo Switch title in history. And that's great, considering the game basically doubles as a digital meditation: Your avatar moves at the very calming speed of a snail; the color palette is rich, calming, and welcoming; and research indicates that anthropomorphized animals—like the ones that appear in the game—may increase levels of empathy.
Dr. Daramus says video games can also offer a respite from anxiety, because they force you to shift your attention from your brain to the physical sensations around you, which is similar in effect to psychological grounding practices. "The point is to get yourself out of your own head, and into something else," says Dr. Daramus. "Video games are particularly good at getting you out of your head, just because they demand so much of your attention."
"A world of your own making, that's absent of any pandemics, allows you take back control of what you're recording [in your memory]." —Dr. Daramus
Beyond providing a quick and welcome break from our own brains, some games can actually improve our mental mood in a lasting way. With games that specifically ask users to build a world in which COVID-19 doesn't exist, like The Sims 4, playing may help people reroute how their brains record this time by overriding something called "working memory." "Working memory is everything you're thinking about at this exact moment. And if your brain is full of [feelings of] anxiety and depression, then you need to get away from that. One thing we do to accomplish that is to fill up your working memory, which can only hold so many things at once, with something else other than those thoughts or feelings," Dr. Daramus says. "A world of your own making, that's absent of any pandemics, allows you take back control of what you're recording."
Many games also offer a means for developing a community and cultivating new connections, whether within existing relationships, with strangers via the games themselves, or in third-party discussion groups, like Reddit. "Even adults who wouldn't normally game are finding that this is a way to spend time with friends or their family members, or even with those who don't live in the same household," says Dr. Daramus.
And for those playing video games mostly with strangers, James Ivory, PhD, a communication scholar who focuses on video games, says you're still experiencing a similar sensation to being in a public space with others. "A lot of the other interactions you see people replacing their normal social actions with are things like Zoom meetings, which are relatively intense, direct, face-to-face interactions, and that can be exhausting. It's not necessarily a great substitute for your normal outings," says Dr. Ivory. "In some ways, particular video games might even be better because you kind of get the sense that you're around people. People are in the same virtual space as you, but you're not necessarily in a very extremely intense, eyes-locked-on-each-other interaction either."
How to choose a video game that's beneficial for your mental health
Dr. Daramus doesn't contest the fact that some game-play has been linked with aggressibe behaviors, a conclusion that the American Psychological Association even issued a statement confirming in March. But she does believe the variability in games and personal experiences of gamers are too vast to make any meaningful generalizations about which games cause which outcomes. To be sure, there's a lot of gray area, and when it comes to your own mental well-being, you need to decide which flavor of game will help and not harm.
"If you have a specific mental-health problem like depression or anxiety, you should take a look at the games designed for those," says Dr. Daramus. "For anxiety, check out the EmWave from Heartmath. It comes with a sensor that reads your heart rate and other stress markers and very short video games to help you train yourself for lower stress and other issues."
If what you need is a brain break, Dr. Daramus suggests something fast-paced that takes up all your attention like MySims Agents. If you're feeling anxious, try a meditative game like Flower, and if you want to exert some control, build a new world using a game like Aven Colony or PocketCity. To get pals involved, hop on Wii Friends and play some tennis, like I did in 2007.
As for how much time you spend in front of a screen gaming, Dr. Daramus says that while she formerly would have been inclined to limit screen time, currently she's all about telling people to listen to their own mental-health cues. "Before COVID-19, I would have been a little more into the idea of reducing people's gaming time and looking at other ways to engage and cope with the world. Nowadays, I'm more inclined to just say, 'Monitor how you feel while you're playing. How are games affecting your life?'"
If the answer for you is: "Playing video games for an hour a day helps me feel joyful, and they're contributing to my mental health," then Dr. Daramus has two words of advice: Play on.
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