Do Video Games... Help?

I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that most people on this forum have at least some amount of hardship in their life. I, myself, struggle with a lot of mental illness and emotional struggles. Even ignoring that, living in the kind of society most of us live in is awfully stressful. Figuring out how to make it through to the next day can be difficult.

Do video games help?

I’m not asking this rhetorically. Looking at my history with video games, it’s genuinely difficult to tell. Do they help? Sure, spending time with hobbies and passions helps. But does the act of playing video games as a form of stress relief help substantially? Does getting lost in mechanics help with healing and calm you down?

I think the answer is yes, but I also wonder: can it also cause problems? Can you easily end up relying on video games as a short term relief tool that quickly relieves a problem, maybe even causing more?

What’s your experience with video games as a therapeutic pastime? Has it helped you with any specific issues? Do you find it difficult to strike balance?

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For me, yes. Absolutely.

I actually wrote a piece on games and how they help me with depression last summer, for a site called First Person Scholar. I also wrote my undergrad thesis on trauma and game narratives as therapy (of a kind), so this is a question I have a lot of Feelings about.

Considering that, I won’t recap everything, but games have always been something that helps me through stress and mental health problems, both large and small. The simplest explanation: I think on a larger scale it’s because they take all of my attention—with books or films or exercise or other ways I can spend my time, I can always have other processes humming in my head, and I get easily distracted. Games just envelop me in a way that allows me to block all of that out. I can’t listen to the parts of myself I don’t want to listen to when all or my attention is focused on a puzzle, or on combat, or a quest. Especially games where I become really invested in their world or sensory experience—something like Forza Horizon 4 for example was huge for me in a stressful period last fall. Breath of the Wild saw me through a rough depressed period two springs ago. Dark Souls 2 has been helping me a lot over the past few weeks because of how fully immersed I get in its world.

This obviously isn’t going to be one to one for everyone, but I can say uncategorically yes that, for me, games help.

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I think an important aspect of using games as escapism is considering what I’m escaping from. I have some severe anxiety issues, so there are cases where having a game to focus on is useful because it keeps me from overthinking a situation I have no control over. I’ve recently been in the process of both moving and changing jobs at the same time, so having a game or two I can turn on to put anxiety in the back of my head has been nice.

But there are situations where escapism is not the best response to adversity. Using games in those cases dillutes any bad feelings sure, but isn’t super helpful in the long run. The obvious example that comes to my head is receiving a bad grade in a class, playing games is a quick way to not think about it, but likely not the first thing I should do.

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in my own experience… not really. if i’m upset about something or in a bad space, videogames can kind of distract me from that. is that “helping”? i guess? a little? but often not at all. it’s easy for me to be feeling crappy, play a game for a couple of hours, wonder “what just happened to those two hours?” and be feeling crappy again. i guess it’s good that i didn’t feel quite as crappy for those two hours, but my condition hasn’t really improved.

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I think for me, games have been meditative exercises whenever I have anxiety regarding a big decision, or about something dumb that I did in a social situation.

Cam and Michael discussed in an episode of Game Study Study Buddies the difference between ‘deep attention’ and ‘hyper attention’. Deep attention is, at a high level, where you’re engaging fully with a single object, idea, or concept. Hyper attention is focusing on a bunch of things at once and tracking them.

Obviously, games excel much more at the latter in general, and that kind of hyper attention is a great way for me to gain distance mentally from whatever is causing me anxiety. It helps me return to that source of anxiety in a much more emotionally balanced state. I agree, however, that this behavior can degrade in to avoidance, and I’ve been more than guilty of letting that happen. Having people in your life that hold you accountable for those things is immensely helpful.

I think what is interesting about this is, at least for me, reading a book or performing something else that requires a deep attention is not nearly as effective. My mind will constantly wander back to whatever I’m worried about, and I’m unable to fully engage in the way that I should.

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As escapism yeah, but if I’m already in a depressive funk or otherwise not in a good place I don’t particularly feel like playing video games. I do make a lot of little simple games in Bity and TWINE and stuff to help process though, but creating stuff is like the exact opposite of escapism, so video games help in that respect.

But whenever I’m playing a game I want to get as much out of it as possible so if I’m not in a mindset where I can really focus on it I’m not going to bother.

Video games have lot of ups in down when it comes to escapism or coping with depression and anxiety for me, but something tangential to that: video games are almost the only thing in the world that give my mind peace from my ADHD.

Normally my mind is pulled in so many directions at once it’s perpetually exhausting. Relaxing is hard. I get restless after one episode of a tv show, movies can be hard unless I’m really invested, books are hit or miss. But I can just sit down and engage with a game and for whatever reason all of my little strands of thought are able to converge on one thing for a while and it’s honestly just so relieving.

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As someone who’s invested a significant portion of their life to video games, it’s kind of painful for me to admit that they’ve rarely been good for my mental health. I think they were most helpful when I was a child, when sitting with a Gameboy could temporarily take me out of difficult situations I shouldn’t have been in at such a young age. But if I look at my adolescence and some of my young adulthood, it’s obvious that I learned that lesson too well and started prioritizing escapism over everything else.

Something I think about a lot is Matt Lee’s idea that video games are some of the most efficient tools we have for making large chunks of time disappear, and it’s uncomfortable to look back and see my own life dotted with periods defined only by the games I was playing. My mental health was seriously compromised during those times, and games were an easy way of glossing over my issues without addressing any of the underlying causes. There was an episode around the time I turned 21 where things got especially bad, and thinking back to how desperate I was to seal myself in a cocoon of games is sobering now.

I want to say that getting older and becoming more stable has helped me correct my behavior, but that’s only half-true. Even though I’m objectively better off in almost every way than I was when I was younger, I still probably spend too much time playing video games, and I still feel the pull of the safety and numbness that they offer. It’s only recently that I’ve figured out that I actually enjoy games more when they’re part of a more balanced life, rather than the main thing I devote my (free) time to. So over the past two years or so I’ve been making an effort to pack out my schedule with more social activities, but it’s always just that; an effort. If I stop paying attention for too long, it’s very easy for me to fall back into old habits.

None of this is to say that I think games are inherently bad, or can only negatively impact your mental health. Like I said, I’m pretty sure actually helped me in some ways as child. It’s just an honest reflection on the relationship I’ve had with them throughout my life.

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My anxiety usually shows up in very high-pressure, intense bursts, so I don’t think games are helpful with it. If I’m bordering on a panic attack or have an immense load weighing me down, that’s probably when I wanna play the least. Depression is a bit hit-or-miss. I’m not convinced that games helping me out of a rut is just, like, me playing with friends and being reminded that people care about me or whatever the crutch of the situation is. I’m a sponge when it comes to how emotional resonance affects me, so the game itself might matter a lot, too.

But @Ziven001 and @Joebles are exactly in-line with me when they say that games are the only medium that consistently help with (or at least distracts me from) AD(H)D. I, too, am incapable of “binging” TV or watching movies in one sitting, but playing intensive games is almost trivial. Interestingly, as much as I prefer short-form games that you finish in 1-2 sittings, it’s way harder for me to get the drive to start/finish them compared to, like, Dark Souls, which I replayed from front to back this past week.

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Not in my experience. It’s a good way to turn off my brain, but that can be bad if I’m just avoiding stuff that I need to deal with. SSRIs have been a great help for depression and anxiety though! I put off medication for far too long because of the stigma attached to using them.

In my life, I completely unscientifically feel that they are an effective respite from anxiety, and a good reward I can give myself for getting through hard things.

But the problem sometimes with respite is that it can become avoidance. Because respite feels good, and fighting anxiety is hard, and honestly, not always worth it. I definitely struggle with that.

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As someone who had their first serious bout with depression last year and was trying to come to terms with a previously undiagnosed mental illness and how much it would impact my life going forward, I will readily admit that Celeste was huge help for me when it came out last year. It might not be the most groundbreaking of messages it delivers, but it was absolutely a message that I needed to hear at that point in time and it moved me and touched me more than damn near any piece of media I can remember, to the point that I actually shed a tear during Matt’s acceptance speech at the game awards.

So yes, I absolutely think that games can help, just like any other piece of art can help. I don’t know that it’s easy to find or even do, but sometimes the shoe just fits really well, if that makes sense.

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For me, they make the good stretches of life better but the bad stretches worse.

For me lately games have been incredibly useful for dealing with anxiety when that anxiety has specifically been related to waiting for lots of other people to make decisions that will impact the next year of my life. But at most other times I have a very bad habit of using games as a way of avoiding decisions, or avoiding doing things that I need to, to the point that I probably need to just try and find a month where I just don’t play them.

It’s easy for me to point to periods of my life where I haven’t read a book, or haven’t watched any tv shows or movies, but I can only point to one six month period of my life where I didn’t play many games, and it was also possibly the happiest period of my life. The next year for me is probably going to be a key time to figure out my relationship with games, and whether or not they are actually helping me.

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It’s been a mixed bag. On one hand video games have been the number one cause of distraction from life responsibilities, and on the other hand playing (and beating) them sate a deep desire to feel productive and accomplished, lol. It’s basically a fake panacea, so thanks for reminding me to moderate my play time.

In my experience, no they don’t help.

Video games just provide a distraction and put off dealing whatever is triggering my anxiety. They affect my sleep, if I’ve been playing games in the evening it takes me ages to switch off and sleep. Poor sleep makes my mental health worse. Video games also take up time I could be using to do things that actually help me, like exercise.

When my mental health is great I actually play very little in the way of video games. It’s almost a symptom. But I use it as a bit of an indicator. I know if I’m gaming a lot it’s time to right the ship and look after myself more.

As with several people here, I’d say it’s a mixed bag.

If I’m depressed, then I used to “rely” on playing games to make me “feel better” - but this only works with particular kinds of games
(harder games almost always make me feel worse, because modern hard games are also about punishing you - unlike @Lassemomme , I found Celeste actively harmed my mood - I was unable to get to the bits of the message that might have helped, because it was too hard, and the “assist mode” never really helps, psychologically in this kind of “the challenge is kinda the point” game for me)
, like Zachtronics style logic games, or “narrative choice” games.
MTG:A also works; unlike most multiplayer games I’ve tried; because, I think, it’s less twitch and more “mental challenge”, plus there’s very little interaction with the opponent other than the limited phrases.
In general, I find watching people playing games more helpful for mood than playing games - but that’s also dangerously passive, which ultimately also doesn’t help.

God, I really want to start listening to GSSB but also want to actually read the texts they’re discussing first!

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I’ve got a job that can honestly been pretty traumatizing sometimes and coming home to sink into a comfy video game does do a lot to help my brain unwind and let go of my day. Jumping in to a chill game like Dark Souls, Destiny or Total Warhammer, games I’m good at, really help my psyche rebound after a rough day.

But I’m at a point in my life non where the only competitive games I play have high skill ceilings so honestly if I’m in a bad mood after work, I won’t jump into a game where I can potentially fuck up and get pissed at myself.

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I think this is the fundamental difference that Games have brought to the table. Whilst still being an ultimately passive experience for the most part (you are engaging with someone else’s authored content), they are designed to actively hook into your attention on all levels in the way that a book, and even to an extent a film simply cannot.

In my experience this both helps them fulfill the function of fully distracting me from something else that I am obsessing over, but also makes them far more likely to act as a negative distraction in their own right.

There is also the aspect of social games/verses solo, and surprisingly as someone who is pretty avoidant of social situations I find playing games with other people online relatively enjoyable.

One final thought, whilst those of us who are relatively older, and grew up with games which were, at best, accidentally engaging for long periods of time, it can be hard to differentiate that from modern games (and media) which are clinically calculated to hook you for as long as possible. I think I’m hyper aware of this as I studied design and have a good idea of advertising and the related skills (and have basically sworn off design because the idea makes me feel physically sick sometimes), and it can make it really hard to trust the motives of a game.

Edit: and another thing that I nearly always bring up; in a modern world where nothing much is certain (certainly not jobs/finance or home or security) there is something intensely appealing in sitting down with a game and knowing that I will get something specific back for my time

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