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Games as Tools for Mental Health Awareness and Support

Life isn’t always butterflies and rainbows – and that’s okay and completely normal. That said, if you’re in need of butterflies and rainbows when there aren’t any real ones around you, there are always digital versions! 

In recent years, the stigma surrounding mental health issues has slowly diminished, and more people are seeking help and support for their well-being. Alongside this positive shift in attitudes around mental health, many players and professionals have recognized video games as powerful tools for promoting mental health awareness and providing support. Contrary to the stereotype of video games being isolating and detrimental, they can play a significant role in fostering understanding and empathy for mental health challenges. In this blog post, we’ll explore how games are being harnessed to advance mental health awareness and provide people with support.

via Giphy

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Stress Relief and Emotional Regulation

If you’re an avid gamer, you probably already know that games can serve as a means of stress relief and emotional regulation. Certain video games, like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing provide players with a calming virtual world where they can escape the stresses of daily life. 

This is backed up by a study conducted by researchers at Oxford University that suggests playing video games can have a positive impact on mental health. The study focused on players of games like Animal Crossing and Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, finding that those who played more games reported higher levels of “well-being.” This research is notable because it used actual play-time data, unlike previous studies that relied on self-reported playing time, which was found to be weakly correlated with actual play.

The lead researcher, Andrew Przybylski, emphasized the importance of using data collected by gaming companies for academic and health policy research. The study indicates that playing video games for up to four hours a day, particularly games like Animal Crossing can contribute to increased happiness.

Additionally, video game games can help individuals build emotional regulation skills by offering a safe space to confront difficult emotions and navigate challenges in a controlled environment. For example, a report published in the JMIR Serious Games highlights a study that found that “adolescents who played ‘Mario Kart’ had better emotional regulation skills than peers who didn’t play the game.”

Altogether, this growing body of research on video games’ effect on players’ mental health emphasizes the potential of gaming not only as a source of entertainment but also as a tool for promoting well-being and emotional resilience.

Mental Health Education and Reducing Stigma

Beyond providing players with spaces to relax and decompress, there are many games that allow players to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges people with mental health issues face, reducing stigma and misinformation. Depression Quest, for example, offers players a narrative-driven experience that explores the complexities of living with depression. Check out Folding Ideas analysis of the game below, and why and how a video game is a uniquely effective medium for Depression Quest.

Since Depression Quest’s release in 2013,  there has been an increasing number of video games that address and represent mental health issues, marking a significant shift in the gaming industry’s approach. New York Times author Laura Parker notes several games, including Sea of Solitude, Celeste, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Night in the Woods, and Pry as titles that explore themes like depression, anxiety, self-identity, anger issues, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

These games offer an interactive way to engage with and understand mental health challenges, Parker writes, and some players have found them more impactful than traditional media like film or television. Video games can create a deeper connection by allowing players to embody characters dealing with mental health issues. 

Parker also highlights that independent game developers have led the way in tackling these topics. However, Electronic Arts, a major industry publisher, is also now investing in games that address mental health issues, such as Sea of Solitude

As societal conversations around mental health become more prominent, video games have become a platform for discussing these issues, and normalizing mental health challenges. Parker reports that players often communicate personal connections to these games, which have inspired them to be more open about their mental health struggles and to seek professional help. 

Additionally, at 2023’s Games for Change Festival, Paul Fletcher, a professor at Cambridge University, gave a talk centered around Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, and how the game reduces stigma around mental illnesses, particularly psychosis.

With both independent and major industry developers investing in this area, video games are helping normalize discussions surrounding mental health, promoting open dialogue, and inspiring individuals to seek professional help when needed. 

Community Building

Feelings of loneliness and isolation have spiked in the general population after COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020. For those who don’t have access to an in-person social circle, online gaming communities provide a space where individuals can connect with others who share similar experiences or challenges. Communities, whether in-person or virtual, can provide people with a sense of belonging, a place where they can openly discuss their feelings and receive support from those who understand their struggles.

A recent study conducted by researchers from Texas A&M’s School of Public Health examines the impact of online gaming social networks on mental health. The study focuses on the role of social connectivity and support in the context of online gaming.

Researchers used social network analysis to investigate the social structure of an online football simulation gaming site over two points in time. They aimed to understand how social support, the sense of community, and symptoms of depression influence social connections among players.

The study involved 37 members surveyed at the beginning and 40 at the end, with 30 members represented in both samples. The data collected included age, sex, hours spent on the gaming site, and responses to survey items about depressive symptoms and perceived ability to discuss problems with others.

Findings revealed that social support, a sense of community, and depressive symptoms played a role in shaping the game’s social structure over time. Members who reported more online social support and less real-life support were more likely to reach out to other players. Communication ties were more likely to form when interactions were reciprocated or transitive. Players who spent more time on the site also tended to have more communication ties.

Furthermore, members who felt a greater sense of community and valued their participation in the site were more likely to establish communication ties over time. This underlines the importance of a sense of community in online gaming – but also exemplifies the potential for online communities to become echo chambers for specific ideologies.

Notably, members with fewer sources of real-life support were more likely to form communication ties. However, those reporting more significant depressive symptoms were less likely to initiate communication ties over time, suggesting a need for more formal support for members dealing with depression. Video games can be a great mental health aid, but they are not a replacement for formal care. 

Overall, this TAMU study emphasizes the significance of informal social networks in online gaming in helping individuals cope with stressors and seek support for mental health challenges. It underscores the need for further research to better understand the complex relationships in this area and improve social connections and mental health support, especially during isolating times like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Listen to a panel of creators and experts talk about video games as mental health support in a post-COVID-19 world below!

Whether through providing stress relief, educating about mental health issues, or building supportive communities, games have made a significant impact on the way society perceives and addresses mental health. As this trend continues, we can look forward to a future where video games play an even greater role in advancing mental health awareness and providing essential support for those in need.

Are you looking to create a video game with a positive impact? We’re educational game developers, and we’d love to hear from you. Contact us today to chat about how we can use our 18 years of industry experience to bring your vision to life!

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