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Mental Health and Games (during a pandemic)

Mental Health - Self Care via Games

EDITORS NOTE: Occasionally we have freelancers that we work with who have generated something great and we want to share it.  With Richard's permission we thought this was interesting to our community (especially in these strange strange times).  Thanks for making this available Richard.

- Stuart


Friday nights, 8.30pm. My living room. During the various lockdowns we've all endured over the last 12 months or so, this is the time and location of one of the main things that has dragged me through this Pandemic - games night! It's a simple premise, myself and my friend put in our headsets to our PlayStation 4 controllers, grab a couple of high end snacks that we kid ourselves haven't been bought just for this occasion and one or two alcoholic beverages. We sit, chat and play games. Easy and another thing the world has taken for granted during this Covid era.

To begin with it was just something to do, we couldn't go to the pub or meet anybody face to face and it was better than just having a Zoom chat. After a while though, it evolved into something else and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one in the world who felt like this. You see, it became the highlight of my week and not only that it became something that I felt like I actually needed. The thought of a few rounds of Rocket League before heading into the more involved world's of GTA 5 or Red Dead 2 was absolutely getting me through the week when other things in my life were talking some adjusting to.

Let me take you back in time to around March 23rd when the UK entered its first lockdown. Like everyone else, the announcement was a shock to the system and in the weeks and months that followed things didn't get easier. My wife and I were juggling key worker roles where we would work from home with the home schooling of our then 4 year old son - anybody who has done this will largely tell you that this is a thankless task and not very much fun, still it has to be done and all while getting stressed about fitting your own jobs in around all this. It was an extremely difficult time and some days you could almost feel your own mental stability crumbling away trying to keep all of those plates spinning.

This is why those Friday Night Game Night's became so entrenched within my experience of lockdown - it was my release, my escape, my going out even because while I was on the streets of San Andreas, in the Rocket Arena or even riding horseback from Blackwater to Rhodes around the banks of Flat Iron Lake, I wasn't in my living room. I was elsewhere having exciting adventures, going out, meeting people (and virtually fighting with people) - all the things I couldn't do in real life during lockdown. Though to be fair, the killing people part might be frowned upon even in non pandemic times. 

I believe that something akin to what I've described here applies to most people who have used video games to help them through lockdown and now there have been actual studies done to support this theory. As reported in The Guardian in November last year, Oxford University have conducted a study which uses players' actual play data to assess how much time was being spent on particular games, in this case it was Animal Crossing and Plants Vs Zombies that were the focus of that particular study. Through the use of the games data, primarily how long the person had played for, and followed up with some questions about their everyday lives and feelings afterwards. What this showed was that people who had played these particular games in the study were actually happier than the people in the study who hadn't played the games which, for the first time, highlighted a correlation between video gaming and happiness in terms of their mental health.

Of course, this doesn't paint the whole picture due to the game data mainly being observed was the play time itself. So the results actually obtained here were people who play for longer are the happiest, which may be so but viewing the benefits of the effects of video games on mental health purely in these terms is a little simplistic. For instance, you need to look at more subjective data such as what types of games different types of people enjoy playing - one person may enjoy playing a racing game, another may enjoy a sports game while someone else may enjoy being scared out of their wits in a horror game. Different games but all with the same effects on the player in different ways - for instance someone who plays Gran Turismo Sport will glean excitement and happiness from the speed of the race and the quick reflexes needed to guide your car around the track. The person who enjoys playing FIFA or PES might only play a match or two at a time but will glean their happiness from guiding their favourite team to glory or playing the 'beautiful game' the way they think it should be played. Similarly the horror game player will place their importance on story and atmosphere which will combine to provide the scares in the game such as in Alien Isolation. It's difficult to quantify this data as it is subjective but it is no less important to look at.


A more surprising benefit of playing video games comes from within the medical world itself in the field of laparoscopic specialists whose expertise lies in small incisions. A study of these specialists has found that the ones who play video games in their spare time are making up to 32% fewer mistakes during procedures than their non gaming counterparts. That is a massive swing in favour of the gamers whose reflexes and fine motor skills are being exercised in their free time as well as in their profession. Still, I'm not sure I want my doctor's picking up their qualifications and credentials from playing Surgeon Simulator or Theme Hospital!

Games can also open people up to new hobbies or learning opportunities through games, just playing through the original Medal of Honour on the PS1, which was one of the most atmospheric games on the original Sony console, had me thinking about how accurate was this games depiction of World War II? This then caused me to go and find out more about the whole time period in general and about certain aspects of the war for both Allied Forces and Nazi soldiers. It doesn't have to be about war, it could be geography, sports, animals or, in my case, cars - everything I know about cars has pretty much been gleaned initially from Gran Turismo and then onto books and internet searches for more detailed information. The point is that increased knowledge and learning in itself can make you feel happier and improve your mental health. 

Another study has been carried on people with Autism who play video games and has found that sometimes the part of the disorder that affects communication can actually be improved upon when taking part in multiplayer games that require communication and therefore make a difficult part of that person's life less daunting and help take that interaction into the real world.

Sony have clearly realised this with their Play at Home initiative which they did in 2020 and again this year in which players can download games for free without the need for an active PlayStation Plus subscription. Last year they did Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection and Journey and then Bandai Namco then weighed in with PacMan Championship Edition 2 being offered for free which I did take advantage of and was a much better game than it had any right to be. The 2021 version has offered indie gems such as Rez Infinite, Enter the Gungeon and The Witness as well as the absolute tour de force that is Horizon Zero Dawn. Hats off to Sony who can see the benefit of video games on mental health and their financial situations by offering games for free to help us through these seemingly interminable lockdowns. 

In times where much is uncertain and we are not allowed to see loved ones we can only assume that Covid-19 is here to stay for a while yet. If that is the case then video games will continue to not only be my hobby but also my salvation as I recreate my social network on a virtual basis and my mental health can only be positively affected by continuing to enjoy games of all kinds. 

About the author

Richard Hyde

Richard Hyde

Richard's an avid gamer and esport fanatic (as well as fostering a frankly unhealthy love of horror movies).  He's worked with Code Wizards for years providing articles, running competitions, helping at events and making our words zing!

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