Video games have earned something of a poor reputation in the field of mental health. They have been blamed for everything from criminal violence to depression to compulsive sexual behavior. And while it is true that video gaming, in conjunction with other factors, can become a problematic or maladaptive behavior, there is mounting evidence to suggest that modern video games can support mental health and well-being. Let’s examine the therapeutic potential of video games.
A video game gives comfort to millions during a global crisis
One of the off-the-beaten-track headlines that grabbed my attention during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic reported that millions of people around the world were coping with pandemic stress, anxiety, isolation, disconnection, and uncertainty, by playing a video game.
I myself had enthusiastically played video games — mostly the popular 2D platformers of the mid-to-late 1980s and early 1990s — during my childhood. But that had been pure diversion or else good-natured competition among friends. I had never approached a video game with a therapeutic purpose in mind. In fact, I had never before considered the possibility that video games could serve a therapeutic purpose at all.
Eventually, I picked up that headline-making game and experienced it for myself. It proved to be a wonderful immersion in a world of simple, mindful pleasures. Fishing. Catching insects. Digging up fossils. Harvesting fruit. Supporting the growth and integration of a community of adorable villagers. No battles to fight, no enemies to defeat—just casual, relaxed, open-ended gameplay. This encouraged the player’s creative self-expression and self-direction. The stresses and worries of the day would gradually lift as the tranquil, mindful atmosphere of the game cleared my own mind of unwanted, superfluous mental noise.
I started to become more interested in the intersection of video games and therapy.
More and more video games embrace therapeutic themes
There are games that inadvertently support mental health and well-being (such as the one I discussed above). There is also a growing number of games whose narratives and themes revolve explicitly around themes of mental health and well-being. One such game dramatizes — through a series of precision platforming stages — one young woman’s struggle out of depression and into a state of greater acceptance, wholeness, and hopefulness. Another such game enlists you as the navigator of a fantasy maritime vessel that ferries the souls of the deceased to their next destination, all while poignantly exploring the experience of coping with loss, grief, and mortality.
With games like these — and many more — it is not so outlandish to imagine video games being intentionally incorporated into mental health treatment.
Video games are hubs of actual human community
There is another potential mental health benefit to video games. Some video games and video game franchises serve as the nuclei of vibrant communities of actual, real-life human beings. They gather to enthuse about their passion together. If you are a video game newbie or certified hobbyist, and you are looking for a Zoom-eschewing entry point into a social group, video game fandoms might be one place to start looking. Some of these fandoms act as de facto support groups for their members.
Although not immune from being appropriated by psychopathology, video games can also be made to serve therapeutic purposes. The therapeutic potential of video games is only beginning to be realized. The worth or value of video games, like the worth or value of anything else, is entirely dependent on the way in which they are approached and the purposes to which they are dedicated.
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