Gaming to boost mental health: 5 tips from a psychologist

Video games are undeniably a great way to relax, escape from reality, and have fun — but they’re also a double-edged sword. In certain circumstances, playing video games can easily morph from a fun and light-hearted activity into a problematic behavior that leads to irritability, addiction, and social isolation. So what’s the best way to navigate this slippery slope? Is there a way to reap all the mental health benefits of gaming while avoiding the pitfalls?

For guidance, we spoke to Dr. Kelli Dunlap, a clinical psychologist, game designer and educator with a passion for all things gaming and mental health. Here are a few tips and tidbits to help ensure gaming benefits your mental, emotional, and social well-being.

young woman playing video games on a pc

Digital Trends: Most discussions about “positive” gaming revolve around the “right” types of gaming – e.g. B. tame cute games like Stardew Valley or Mario Kart. But what if you don’t like these types of games? What if you like fighting games, shooters or survival horror? If you enjoy playing games that feature rivalry, gore, violence, etc., what can you do to ensure you receive positive mental health benefits in such an environment?

dr dunlap: That’s the wonderful thing about games, there are almost limitless options to choose from. Our mental health benefits most when we engage in something that we either enjoy or find meaningful. If you like growing plants, that’s great. If you like explosions, that’s great too. Gaming is about taking care of the parts of you that charge your batteries, and there’s no one game or genre that’s right for everyone. As my mother always says, “Do what makes your heart happy.”

Is there one type or genre of gaming that offers more mental health benefits than others? Are certain types of games better suited to certain age groups? For example jigsaw puzzles for older adults?

No game or game type will be beneficial for every person. Looking at games that offer mental health benefits is a bit like having a doctor write a prescription. You need to know about the person, their history and needs, as well as their interests and skills. It can be helpful to look at the mental benefits of playing as psychological weightlifting. Would you like to work on your creative problem solving? Try a puzzle game! Does the world feel stressed and out of control? Try a simulation game, e.g The Simsto instill a sense of peace and control.

How can we avoid addictive behaviors since many games are explicitly designed to keep us hooked and engaged and to interfere with the brain’s natural reward system to ensure we keep playing for as long as possible? What steps can we take when the game we play is designed for addiction?

Some games use “dark design patterns,” a design style that exploits vulnerabilities in how we process information, social relationships, and emotions. Celia Hodent has done an excellent job in this area. In terms of what players can do, the simplest answer is to check in with yourself and make sure you’re quiet enjoy what are you doing. Gaming can be a very engaging activity and from the outside it can be really difficult to tell the difference between high engagement and problem play.

But one of the key differences is that engagement makes us feel “The Good Feels,” things like a sense of accomplishment or relaxation. A sign of problem gaming is that gaming isn’t fun anymore – it feels like work or drudgery, or that something bad is about to happen if you don’t log in (e.g. others below). Sometimes games are frustrating, and there can be a sense of drudgery or drudgery, but if that’s the bulk of your experience, it’s probably a good idea to re-evaluate your relationship with the game.

man playing video games

Is there an optimal gaming session time that we should aim for in order to get the greatest mental health benefits from gaming? We hear about the negative effects of gambling in the media far too long and too often. Do we continue to reap the same mental health benefits from long gaming sessions, or is succinct better?

There is no magic formula for time spent gaming. Basically, a recent study by the Royal Society says that time spent playing games doesn’t matter. Usually it is why You play what matters, not how long.

Do you play to have fun, hang out with friends, save the world, or show off your skills? Or are you playing because you feel like you have to, because you have to grind for the next level, or because the raid team is counting on you? Playing for pleasure, excitement, relaxation and connection is a way to meet our basic needs. But if we play out of a sense of duty – gaming feels like work or duty – then it’s time to reevaluate our relationship with the game.”

In an era of online MMORPGs, co-op shooters, battle royale games and VR, how can we protect our sanity by playing cooperative online games with strangers? Do these games offer different benefits or risks to our mental health?

I’ve made some amazing friends through online gaming. Some I have had the opportunity to meet in person at conventions or events, and others I only know from their voices. Online friendships are “real” friendships, despite many headlines. However, most people gamble when they play online in social settings with people they already know. A bit like a club. And much like a club, it’s not really about the game or the activity itself, it’s about the culture and social norms within that club.

For example, some syndicates are incredibly toxic while others are pretty damn sane. Protecting your mental health would mean considering the tone and culture of a game’s community and, if that community exhibits some toxicity, taking steps to protect yourself. For example, I’m a huge Halo fan and love playing online multiplayer. However, I remain in a party chat (private voice chat) with my friends while I play and do not interact with the “randoms” on my team or the other team. I wish I didn’t have to take these extra steps, but doing so minimizes the chance of encountering harassment or abuse while also allowing me to hang out with my friends.

young woman with hands on head frustrated at game

What if you already have mental health issues like depression or anxiety? Can gaming help? Is there a certain type or genre of games that someone with anxiety, for example, would benefit more from (and also any game genres to avoid)?

Games are not a substitute for mental health treatment, but they can be a tool in recovery or in dealing with mental health issues. Many people use games to help them deal with difficult situations or times in their life, and that includes dealing with psychological challenges like depression and anxiety. There are countless personal stories from gamers about how games have helped them by giving them something to look forward to. [making them] feel connected to others, [allowing] they feel in control or competent.

What kind of games bring these benefits is deeply individual and personal. Some people with depression prefer games that allow them to escape, to exist somewhere else where depression cannot reach them. Others may enjoy playing depression or depressive-themed games because it helps them feel validated when they hear and see that their experience is recognized. Similarly, someone with fear may avoid horror games (like me!) while others like horror games because those games create a type of fear that they can control.

Many parents don’t allow their children to play violent, gory, or scary games because they fear it will harm their mental health. Is there actually evidence of this? Could these types of games have their own unique advantages or benefits?

Research on violent video games has consistently found that there is no link between violent video game play and violent behavior. Playing violent video games will not cause someone to act violently. However, there is something to be said about a game’s development adequacy. For example, I don’t let my 6-year-old son play Call of Duty – not because I’m concerned that a violent game will lead to violent behavior, but because it’s not appropriate content for a 6-year-old.

I also don’t let my 6 year old watch R rated movies or watch adult rated TV shows. Exposure to content that is not developmentally appropriate, regardless of the medium, can have negative effects. When a parent thinks their child isn’t ready to play a certain type of game, it’s a great opportunity for the parent and child to sit down and have a conversation about gaming, maturity and safety.”

With your years of experience as a clinical psychologist and game designer, what would be your top five tips for promoting mental health through games, considering the points above and anything else you think is important?

  1. Make sure you have a good time! I used to play competitively and I got to the point where I was exhausted, burned out and not enjoying my game anymore. If you’re not getting what you want from gaming (e.g. relaxation, spending time with friends, feelings of accomplishment), take a second to reflect and re-evaluate.
  2. Make sure you have a varied game diet. I love trying new games and different types of games. Video games, board games, card games, role-playing games… there is so much to experience out there.
  3. If you’re a parent, play With your child. My crew does Pokemon Go together to get out of the house. We also play Sonic and Mario and other games my 6 year old can play and it’s a great way to bond as a family and teach things like perseverance (it’s ok kiddo try again!), teamwork , and creativity.
  4. It’s okay to like what you like, even if nobody else does. Gaming has some issues with gatekeeping on terms like “casual” or “hardcore” signaling that some games are not REAL games. Play what you like and ignore the haters.
  5. Make time for play in your life. Just because we’re getting older doesn’t mean we outgrow our need for play and recreation. Your worth doesn’t depend on your productivity, so make time for frivolity, silliness, and playfulness.

follow dr Kelli Dunlap on Twitter for more gaming content with a mental health bias.

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