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How Gaming Improves Your Psyche: Video Games & Mental Health

Mis à jour : 25 avr. 2018

Video games have often received bad press for having a negative influence on children and adults alike, by inciting violence, antisocial behaviour and addiction. However, various studies have shown that game play could be the antidote to develop cognitive and social skills as well as treat common mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. In an episode of the podcast Note To Self (hosted by Manoush Zomorodi), Jane McGonigal, director of Game Research and Development at Institute for the Future in Paolo Alto explains how, contrary to popular belief, video game play might be the key to improved mental health.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Photo: Courtesy of Nikita Kachanovsky/Unsplash

Ever wondered how hours of playing video games affects the brain and overall wellbeing? Contrary to popular belief video games have some positive effects on the psyche, we explore a few...

Neurological Benefits of Video Game Play

1 | Memory

Recent studies have shown that gaming changes the brain’s capabilities and structure, which improves attention and memory. Findings showed that more complex games like Super Mario 3D World had greater benefits than simpler games like Angry Birds. Although these are seen as more youthful games, the elderly could also benefit from them as engaging their brains could improve brain health and decrease risk of developing conditions such as dementia. Video games also have the ability to stimulate our imagination through the exploration of different worlds, which further unlocks our creativity.

Image: Courtesy of Pexels

2 | Stress, Anxiety & Depression

McGonigal, who has written two books on the subject of the neurochemical changes of video games, expressed that videogames are linked to reducing depression and anxiety. In coversation with Manoush she explains that “recent FMRI studies have shown that at a neurological level, depression and video game play are opposites. The same two regions of the brain that are chronically under stimulated when we are depressed are chronically hyper stimulated when we play video games.” Video games are said to have similar effects on the brain as meditation and deep breathing. Once a user is familiar with a game and understands its rhythm, playing certain games (one gamer mentioned Duck Tales) brings about an almost meditative state, which helps one focus and block out distractions.

Video games have been shown to also positively affect people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). One study showed that individuals with PTSD that played Tetris experienced less flashbacks than those that didn’t play the game. This research has resulted in a sprout of videogames catered to treating the symptoms of some mental illnesses. This has also sparked collaborations between tech companies and psychologists to create virtual reality exposure therapy tools as a means to treating PTSD.

3 | Social Interaction

McGonigal advocates for using video games as a tool for better social interaction. Although the immersive nature of video games has been associated with anti-social behaviours, they also provide opportunities to develop and maintain positive relationships. This is vital for psychosocial adjustment and well-being of children, adolescents and adults. The shared gaming experience with multiplayer games brings about camaraderie and common ground. It is important to highlight that multiplayer games that require physical players provide more effective interaction than online multiplayer games as it facilitates working on communication skills in real world situations.

Image courtesy of Je Shoots/Pexels

Video games may not be the cure, however they provide additional benefits if used appropriately.

How To Use Video Games To Your Advantage In Everyday Life

McGonigal emphasizes that the key is to not create addiction by seeing game play as a way to avoid reality, but as an effective tool to de-stress, practice optimism, and acquire learning skills that can be applied to real life.

Here are some ways in which to use gaming to your advantage:

1 | Know Your Dose

Videogames can be addictive, which can lead to serious consequences when people prioritize gaming over other important aspects of their lives. It important to restrict the time allocated to game play as the mind needs to rest. Playing games for short periods can improve your mood and focus. For effective results gaming should be limited to between 10 & 20 minutes as per McGonigal’s recommendation. A study by East Carolina University suggests that playing 30 minutes of casual video games (family-friendly, non-violent puzzle games) per day can significantly reduce anxiety and depression as well as improve focus at a level that rivals prescription medication.

10 Minutes for games such as the infamous Candy Crush, Tetris or Kitsune (Japanese cat collecting game) help you:

  • Improve your mood

  • Stop an anxiety attack

  • Avoid overthinking / focusing on negative thoughts

  • Avoid giving into cravings (food or even cigarettes)

Image courtesy of Beata Dudova/Pexels

20 Minutes of Nintendo games such as The Legend of Zelda help you calm the mind and body and be more mindful.

For the best results you should conduct your own social experiment and test out these different recommendations and see which is more effective for your unique needs.

2 | Choose The Right Type of Game

Choose games that are:

  • Challenging and require fast thinking, experimentation, creative problem solving like League of Legends or MineCraft;

  • Collaborative and can be played with people you know, such as Halo. This can improve cognitive abilities and social interaction.

Caution - First Person Shooter games that allow you to play with unknown online users are not as positive for children, or adults as they may create a lack of accountability - people are prone to saying very hurtful and disrespectful things to people they may never have to meet. This could result in poor communication skills and unfavourable social behaviour in real life situations.

3 | Adjust Your Attitude Towards Gaming

For parents: One important rule is not to shame your children about their video game play, as you will be sending them in the wrong direction. You given off the impression that video games have nothing to do with reality as opposed to seeing it as a skill improvement tool. This also creates a barrier between parent and child - encouraging a rebellion and the unwanted escapist use of video, which could lead to addiction.

Talk to your children about the video games they play and learn more about what they teach them. Creating open dialogue will allow you to monitor their effect on your children and also help you direct them to certain games that are promoting developmental skills.

Ask Your Children Questions

Find out what has improved since they started playing certain games. If they give responses regarding:

  • gaining strategy skills,

  • concentration,

  • goal orientation,

  • sharing,

  • perseverance (or their version of the word),

  • the willingness to try more creative strategies

Then they are in good shape.

Knowing the positive effects of video game play and immersive media on mental health should prompt more industries to consider collaborating on research and development of intuitive mechanisms that train people in emotional self regulation and measurably improve their wellbeing.

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