The mental health benefits of gaming

Jenessa Williams

Stress, anxiety, and isolation have been hallmarks of the pandemic experience. In the midst of it, people have turned to gaming to boost their mental wellbeing

More than a year on, it is fair to say that the pandemic has impacted us all. Stress, anxiety and isolation are all deeply understandable sensations in this age of uncertainty, and we all find different ways to get through itTV, books, crafts or indeed, video games.

While ‘gaming’ might make you think of first-person shoot-em-ups or highspeed car racing, there is a softer side too. From aeroplane flight simulators to virtual farming, players are taking more comfort than ever in ‘meditative’ games of repetition and strategy, where ‘game over’ is not an option so much as infinitely remodelling imaginary worlds. At their best, video games can offer a real sense of immersion, and we’ve been drawn in our droves towards titles that offer simple, slow-paced gameplay, soothing in their lack of peril.

Whether you’re an experienced gamer or a technological novice, it’s never too late to try something new. Here, three gamers explain how their favourite meditative titles have helped them to manage grief, depression and isolation, turning their virtual worlds into a welcome escape. 

Having experienced several close family losses, Kevin finds Football Manager to be a nostalgic, soothing way to manage his grief.

Kevin

“I was staying overnight at a friends house when I first experienced the game that would become Football Manager. My friend’s parents had bought him a PC to help him with his schoolwork, and Championship Manager 2 was the only two-player game he had. Even though it took the best part of an hour to load a new game, we were always happy to wait.

Though my experiences with the effects of poor mental health started in childhood - my father suffered from depression and was both mentally and physically abusive - it has been coping with the loss of loved ones that has really shaped me as a person. I’ve only just turned 40 but have lost a sister, my father, a nephew and, most recently, my mother. I was 18 when my sister died, and I became fairly self-destructive; I quit college and spent a lot of time at the pub to try and numb what I was feeling. With my Mum’s help, I was just coming out of the cycle when Dad also passed. Two losses hit hard - my drinking grew to seven pints a night, my weight ballooned to 20-plus stone and I lost two jobs in quick succession. 

Again it was Mum that helped me out of my spin. She found me a part-time job where I was on my feet and talking with people all day. I started to make new friends, to exercise more and to drink less. I lost nine stone in two years and got my career on track before deciding to head to University, where I gained a first-class degree and found the love of my life. It’s been a little over two years since I lost my young nephew and my mother. I’m still recovering and processing the grief of both.

Grief is different for everyone, and while I have tried counselling, it’s been music and gaming that have helped me through the worst periods of my life. Mum and I were very close, and the void she’s left looms large. But I’m learning to cope a little better every day, and Football Manager helps with that. It might seem silly, especially to non-footballing or gaming fans, but the escapism really relaxes me, and by the time I finish playing, I always feel like I’ve somehow reset myself. 

"It's been music and gaming that have helped me through the worst periods of my life"

Football Manager is an amazing way to put some distance between you and your worries. You can be impulsive and win, or take a more methodical approach to success - it’s really up to you and what you find rewarding. I think that’s what makes it so popular - you can feel like you’re succeeding by simply being yourself. That sort of acceptance is all any of us truly crave.”

Throughout the pandemic, Doreen has used Animal Crossing: New Horizons to manage her anxiety and stay connected with friends.

 Doreen

I’ve always been a big gamer - my parents have a Polaroid photo of me on their bed with a Commodore 64 in front of me, playing Q*bert on their bedroom television. As a teenager, I borrowed my cousin’s PS2 to play Final Fantasy VII into the wee hours on a school night - I think it was 4 am on a Tuesday when I finally finished the game!

Doreen with a Nintendo as a child

I had originally played Animal Crossing on the GameCube in the early 2000s; it was incredibly distinctive in its utilization of passing real-time, and I really enjoyed that it wasn’t a game to ‘beat’. When it was announced that Animal Crossing: New Horizons would be released on Nintendo Switch in 2020, I was incredibly excited. I was saving up to purchase a Switch Lite when my boyfriend surprised me with a console, which he gave to me in person right before the first UK-wide lockdown. He mailed a copy of New Horizons to me, and I’ve been playing it solidly on a near-daily basis for the best part of a year.

"I've been playing New Horizons solidly on a near-daily basis for the best part of a year"

Gaming is a great escape from problems and stress. My mother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hasn’t always been great at managing it, so I’ve long been vigilant to mental health, but it wasn’t until I had lived in the UK for a few years that I sought help for my own suicidal feelings, anxiety and depression, which led to a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. After being signed off from work for stress in 2020, I began again with weekly NHS IAPT online counselling, which has been incredibly helpful for addressing my self-critical thoughts.

 Mental health is something we all have to get more comfortable with talking about. Having anxiety or depression is often seen as something to “get over” rather than something to get ongoing help with. Animal Crossing hasn’t ‘cured’ me, but it has allowed me to feel more connected to my support network. Being in a long-distance relationship, the only time I’ve been able to see my partner during the pandemic has been online, often while playing New Horizons together on ‘virtual dates’. With a group of friends, I’ve started a chat group to keep track of the ‘stalk market’ prices on our islands, and to swap fossils and furniture. I’m glad to have had something that has pulled us closer together.

I’ve recently signed up to Mind’s ‘Switch Off, Game On’ campaign, which encourages people to play marathon online gaming sessions to raise money. Gaming has always been something I just did quietly in my room, so the idea of broadcasting it seems quite strange! That said, I now know that it can be an incredible way to connect with others. I hope people enjoy watching me shake some trees!”

Rachel has always enjoyed classic action fighter games, but prefers the comfort of violence-free Lego Adventure games when she’s feeling low.

Rachel

 "Ever since the 80s, I've always had a computer. I was a big fan of storytelling ‘choose your adventure’ games, until one year when Dad bought me a Nintendo console when I was about eight. He got it second hand off a friend, but when we plugged it in, it didn't work! He must have felt really guilty, because he went out and got me the Super Nintendo, and it all started from there.

I happened upon the Lego Games by complete chance – a friend of mine was talking about playing them with his kids, and how much they all enjoyed them. I was a bit sceptical at first, but within half an hour of playing ‘Lord Of The Rings’, I was completely taken by it. I went through a really bad depressive episode about three years ago, where I ordered lots of Lego Games and played them for at least eight hours a day. I was hiding from my problems really, but it worked really well to quieten the horrible negative thoughts that were roaring in my brain.

Lego games tend to be tethered to movies, and focus on following those familiar storylines – Harry Potter, Jurassic World, Indiana Jones. There are tasks to complete, but you can also do extra challenges to collect trophies and items. I think that sense of completion-achievement helps; it's a bit like ‘okay, at least I can do this one thing, I’m not a total failure.’ I still like the Lord of the Rings game best – it feels like this huge immersive world, with all these little quests and details.

During that same depressive episode, a friend sent me The Last Of Us, a zombie apocalypse survival game. It’s the sort of adventure I’d normally like, but I found that I was getting really anxious when I was playing it - physical cold sweats, tense shoulders. It’s one thing to be fighting zombies, but if you’re having a hard time dealing with the humans in your life, you don’t want to be dealing with it in-game too! I had to turn it off and go back to Lego.

"I've been playing New Horizons solidly on a near-daily basis for the best part of a year"

Hardcore gamers can be so dismissive of ‘fluffier’ titles, but you have to just ignore than and focus on the things that work for you. There are horrible expectations of adults these days, where we've just lost our sense of play completely. If it feels calming for you and isn't hurting anyone else, go for it! Everyone should allow themselves space to find that kind of peace.”

If you or somebody you know is struggling, speak to your GP or visit mind.org.uk and Samaritans for confidential advice and support. 

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