In mid-2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) released the 11th revision of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), adding a disorder that’s of particular interest to gamers: gaming disorder. Earlier this year, Prince Harry wanted the popular game Fortnight banned in the U.K due to its addictive nature.
Yet proponents of gaming claim that it has shown promise in reducing stress and anxiety, and may lead to improved brain function. Theravive invited feedback on these contradictory claims and whether there is a mental health benefit to gaming.
Tom Ella, a former writer for Hardcore Gamer, covered video games for a decade and speaks positively about gaming. “It challenges you to empathize with characters, make moral decisions, become immersed in another world, and provide escapism to a degree that other mediums often simply cannot.”
He sees a mindfulness benefit to gaming because it "provides an outlet for those with mental health issues to keep their minds engaged rather than in a spiral." Susan Petang, a Certified Mindful Lifestyle and Stress Management Coach, also see a mindfulness benefit in playing games. "When we're playing video games, we are very focused in the moment. Mindfulness is a key strategy for dealing with stress."
Beyond managing stress and alleviating anxiety, experts see other benefits. Petang believes “gaming can help with problem-solving skills, strategic thinking, and learning cooperation in instances where we're gaming with others.”
Philip Wride CEO, Cheesecake Digital advocates for gaming because “the complexity of it can support our mental wellbeing through the feeling of success when we complete a mission, challenge or part of the story while developing skills such as problem-solving and strategy."
Wride also sees a social benefit since gaming allows players to connect with other like-minded people and build relationships that span the globe. "This can help foster a sense of purpose and belonging in niche communities where shared knowledge and experiences have value to both the self and the group." This is the same approach Kate Gorman, CEO of Fort Mason Games took with her games, "Social is the first and foremost competent in all of our games, and that’s because there’s a science behind how social human connections and interactions make us happier and alleviate stress."
Other experts have concerns about the nature of games. Sal Raichbach PsyD, of Ambrosia Treatment Center, stresses playing in moderation. "The problem is, these games are designed to be addictive; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be fun. It’s all about finding a balance where you can enjoy yourself without playing compulsively."
Andrew Walsh, a social worker, concurs. "Playing video games produces more anxiety. It is similar to how using drugs increases the craving for more drug use. While using drugs may initially quell the craving, it just increases it later on."
The question one needs to ask is whether it interferes with daily life. When avoiding responsibilities or using gaming to withdraw, it becomes an issue. "Since gaming can be addictive," Petang stresses the need to set limits on the amount of time spent and to recognize when the motivations behind gaming aren't healthy. “I set a timer to limit my gaming time, and check in with myself when I feel an excessive need to play games.” Jim Wasserman, a lifelong gamer and retired teacher of media literacy, also values setting limits. “My wife and I raised two sons with both family game night (cards and board) and with them playing computer games. We had some rules, such as a 1- 1- 1 ratio (Computer game-reading-play outdoors).”
In Wasserman’s experience, games “can relieve stress, get one's mind off problems, even restore a feeling of control.” He benefits from playing. "I have had ADHD my entire life, and rather than using medication, partially occupying my brain allows me to let the whispering voices of productivity come forward."
Ultimately, people have to weigh the pros and cons of playing, noting how they feel. Does it take their minds of symptoms or result in chronic avoidance? Does it alleviate stress or increase feelings of anxiety? Any interaction with technology or engaging in a potentially addictive behavior needs self-monitoring. And perhaps the way we thinking of “gaming” needs to be modified as Walsh points out. “There is research that shows that playing video games can reduce anxiety and stress. However, these are typically simple puzzle games. Playing Fortnite or Candy Crush will not actually reduce anxiety. Typically players may report that it does but if we look at brain scans while they play and after they stop playing we see a craving process. Additionally, games are designed to be addictive and a large component of the design process is Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).” Any do we not already have enough of that with Facebook?
Tina Arnoldi is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Charleston, SC, business consultant, and freelance writer. She is a reviewer for PsychCentral (you can find her work here) and has a public portfolio on Contently. You can learn more about her and connect at TinaArnoldi.com