The COVID-19 pandemic has expanded the use of technology in our daily lives in many ways. It is now far more common for activities such as business meetings, mental health therapy, and academic classes to take place online.
This shift has also highlighted a concern that adults have had for quite some time: young people are spending too much of their time on screens.
Since many other online activities are for work or school purposes, using technology to play video games has been heavily scrutinized and villainized. One common misconception by those who don’t play video games is that they are always associated with violence and a lack of social connection.
However, it is imperative to recognize that video games can have a positive effect on socializing, education skills like math and reading, fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and even have mental health benefits.
How do video games have a positive impact on mental health?
- People learn to work towards a goal and experience success.
Video games can give players the experience of working towards a goal, continuing to practice after failure, and the sense of accomplishment when a goal is ultimately met. Experiencing failure, which happens frequently in video games, can be a positive thing. Many young people become so discouraged from not being good at something that they stop or don’t want to do it at all. Video games can help them accept the learning process that is part of goal attainment.
There are a lot of hard things happening around us that we can’t control. Playing video games can give players predictable worlds and a place where they can see the impact of their choices and feel a sense of achievement. This can help to build confidence and self-esteem and provide stress relief.
- Increased perspective taking, decision-making, and critical thinking skills.
Role playing games especially help build these skills, which in turn increase mental well-being.
- Social connection.
Gamers can play with others virtually or in person and this brings with it social benefits to gaming. Since the height of the pandemic, young people especially report spending time with their friends playing multiplayer games. If gamers aren’t playing with others, they often connect elsewhere over the shared topic of video games. In this way, video games can actually help to build social connections, and reduce loneliness.
- Inclusion and space.
Members of marginalized groups such as the LGBTQ+ community can feel like they have no one to relate to in their day to day lives. They can experience increased loneliness, depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Video games give people a platform to connect with others like them and help them to see that they aren’t the only ones with a particular experience. They are given space to be themselves.
- Diversity consideration.
Historically, video games haven’t represented marginalized groups well, but this is changing drastically. There is now an awareness that all groups of people need healthy, positive representation. Researchers reviewed 571 games released between 1984 and 2015 and found that since 2005, the sexualization of women in video games has been declining. Games like Apex Legends include mixed-race characters, as well as openly gay characters. In June 2020, The Last of Us Part II was released. This game stars Ellie, the first queer woman protagonist from a triple-A video game studio. This game also includes a trans man and a bisexual/pansexual character. The more we work to support and encourage diversity in games, the more game developers will see the importance and include positive representation of diverse and marginalized groups in their games.
It is important to note that not all video games are equal, which means that some games are likely not the best fit for people in different developmental stages, with certain behavioral patterns, etc. This poses a challenge for those who don’t play video games but want to gain the positive effects of video games for their child or themselves, as it can be difficult to differentiate between games that could be beneficial and those that are perhaps not beneficial for the child, adult, etc.
How do I help my child, teen, or even myself experience the benefits of video games?
- Make an effort to understand the games they play.
Taking an interest in your child’s favorite games shows that you are interested in what they do and can help to build a secure attachment. Engaging with your child and asking questions can also help you to know the content of their games.
- Set reasonable time limits.
If you understand the type of games that your children play, then you can better assess appropriate time needed for that game. For example, many parents or older generations might remember games like Sonic the Hedgehog. This game is separated into levels, but if you turned it off, you would have to restart at the first level. Most games aren’t like that now. We can either save all our progress at any time or reach a save point within the game. Consider allowing the gamer to reach the save spot, rather than have them lose progress.
- Support social connection.
Another factor to take into consideration is if gamers are playing with friends. If you’re hoping to increase social interaction, then your child will need to be able to schedule to play when it works for all players. This doesn’t mean that they should be able to play whenever they want. It means they now have an opportunity to learn some planning and communication skills!
- Try to refer to video games in neutral or positive ways.
When you talk negatively about something your child loves, that is communicating a lack of connection, and sometimes this can translate to a child feeling like you don’t care about them.
- Maintain moderation.
Video games give us an opportunity to set and maintain healthy boundaries. Missing meals to play games for 15 hours straight is not healthy for our bodies, but letting your child play for 15 minutes often isn’t enough time to get through some introductory scenes. A couple of hours, however, allows time for the gamer to enjoy the game without playing through mealtimes.
There are many games that can have a positive effect on mental health. A few of them include: Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, Minecraft, and Spiritfarer. I encourage everyone to expand their perspectives of video games and give them a try!
Teresa Lynch, Jessica E. Tompkins, Irene I. van Driel, Niki Fritz, Sexy, Strong, and Secondary: A Content Analysis of Female Characters in Video Games across 31 Years, Journal of Communication, Volume 66, Issue 4, August 2016, Pages 564–584, https://doi.org/10.1111/jcom.12237