Can video games help with mental health? Yes, but here’s the catch



At the end of a long work day, there is nothing we’d like to do more than to decompress by playing some video games. But there is always accompanying guilt after spending time playing games. 

Plot twist: Research from Oxford now shows that playing video games may in fact be beneficial. The Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford published a study in 2020, during an era where many of us became hikikomori (“shut-ins”) due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This was also a time where the uncertainty of the world’s situation, adjusting to work-from-home and self-isolation also took a toll on our mental health.

Should the research be a cause for gamers to indulge in games for hours? Let’s see the connections between video games and mental health.

How do video games affect your mental health? 


Remember how our parents used to nag as we switched on the family computer or turn on the TV to boot up our favourite game? “Play video games some more lah! Later spoil your eyesight, affect your grades and learn all the bad things! Every day only know how to waste money, waste time, waste electricity!”

With a title like “Video game play is positively correlated with well-being” the Oxford study challenges the flak that video games might get.

Granted, the Oxford study only focused on Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville, which is hardly exhaustive given that there are so many games out there such as Maplestory, Pokemon Go, Genshin Impact and even Candy Crush.

Nevertheless, many of the findings seem to apply across the board, even though the video games were of different genres.

So how do video games affect your mental health?


The Oxford study found that if you have a desire to play video games, it could positively influence your mental health. You might genuinely enjoy the social interaction with fellow human-controlled avatars in the game (and it’s awesome, really, because in Animal Crossing you can even “celebrate” your birthday and visit your friends virtually even during a pandemic).

However, if you’re only playing because you feel FOMO, don’t wanna be left out or are compelled to for some reason, you won’t feel a benefit. The same goes for those who only see the game as a form of escapism and not as a mode of enjoyment.

It’s kinda like real life, actually. We feel happiest doing the things we truly enjoy and want to do, and while hanging out with people we love. Put us in a situation where we are coerced to do something, or leave us in a room with strangers…and we probably won’t be so happy.

In addition, the Oxford study found a correlation between playtime and well-being. The more time a player spent playing, the better their mental well-being seemed to be. This could also be due to contributing factors such as having the luxury of leisure time and/or those who felt good from the get-go were more likely to be in the mood to play video games as well. Other possible unstudied factors could be level of income, health and being able to afford to buy/play video games.

There’s also a video games and mental health essay available online that extols the virtues of playing video games for, well, better mental well-being. People have also been querying the same thing on a question-and-answer website…just search online for “How do video games affect your mental health Brainly” to see what’s been asked and answered.

On the flip side, excessive gaming has also been reported to negatively affect mental health. It makes sense, because if you spend too much time in the virtual world, especially playing offline games, you may not know how to regulate your emotions or interact face-to-face with fellow humans. There’s also the issue of gaming addiction, which comes with a whole host of problems.

Can video games help with anxiety and depression? 


While a moderate amount of time spent playing video games can encourage positive feelings of well-being, let’s now turn our attention to the question: Can video games help with depression and anxiety? And more importantly, can video games help in mental health recovery?

According to a WebMD article, it’s possible that playing video games can help people suffering from trauma as the virtual world acts like a distraction from their physical and mental hurt (also depends on the type of game). Entering this other realm can also aid those who have mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

A paper in a Games for Health Journal corroborated that video games help with depression and anxiety with measured results that saw the therapeutic potential of video games.

Gaming can also be a safe space where those with PTSD find solace in, reported Wired Magazine. In particular, war veterans whose minds might still be replaying the most horrific scenes from the battlefield can turn their attention to video games such as Animal Crossing, which promotes relaxation, or might even throw themselves into combat-like games to again feel a sense of structure and normalcy.

A 2018 study by a researcher from Johns Hopkins also found that gaming can also foster much-needed social interactions, or even give a person newfound meaning by creating roles in an online guild or in-game jobs. Prolonged exposure via video games might also enable those suffering from depression and anxiety to objectively experience and re-evaluate their memories.

On the other hand, excessive video gaming has been linked to insomnia and lack of sleep, which might cause fluctuations in mood and bring about depression, anxiety and even aggression. Extremely violent video games might also have a part to play in desensitising youth, which might lead to them acting out brutal video game behaviour in reality.

Mental health games for adults 


If you’re looking to reap the benefits of playing video games for better well-being, you might want to look into mental health games for adults. While there are tons of recommendations for a bout of scrabble, mental health Jenga and in-person group activities, we’ll focus on the video games that support better mental health.

Here are a bunch of our favourites:

Best video games for mental health

Video GameCategoryHow does it help
TetrisBlocks puzzle gameStress relief, potential to be used in a clinical setting for PTSD sufferers
MinecraftSandbox-style worldPromotes creativity, relaxing music, has social element, task-oriented
BejweledMatch 3 puzzle gameStress relief, helps you zone out
TeardownDemolition gameVent frustration, stress relief, but with objectives to fulfil (purpose-oriented)
Candy CrushMatch 3 puzzle gameStress relief, helps you zone out
Ring Fit AdventureExercise-themed questsExercise helps promote stress relief and produces endorphins, healthy lifestyle, objective-oriented
Sea of SolitudeAdventure video gameStory-based game that tackles the issue of mental health through a protagonist that literally fights demons
The SimsSimulator gameGives control/normalcy back to the player, simulates life events, design your own “life”, stress relief in the mundane
Animal Crossing: New HorizonsSandbox-style worldRelaxing with a social aspect, create own reality in the game, play at own pace
Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for NeighborvilleThird-person shooterSocial interaction through PvP and multiplayer mode, promotes collaboration, helps you zone out

If you or someone you know is feeling crappy or had a bad day, perhaps you can uplift your mood with a short sesh in a video game. For those who’ve never ever played a video game before, this might be your sign to try it out.

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