Over the past year, mental health has taken a hit. Mass Covid-19 deaths, depression, isolation, economic struggles, anxiety over the state of humankind—it’s been grim. Amidst all of this, people have found many ways to cope, from binge-watching to Peloton. Last week, mine was the release of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.
To be clear, I’d be excited about this trilogy regardless of when it was released, but after the year I’ve had, I feel like I need a direct connection between my body and my PlayStation 5 so I can just download the game straight into my brain. For me, returning to the world of Mass Effect isn’t just about disconnecting from the world; it’s about reconnecting with old friends. Parasocial relationships are real, and right now my favorites are with Garrus, Tali, Liara, and Wrex.
Normally, this kind of reunion isn’t my bag. I’m generally not someone who replays games. I can count the number of story-driven games I’ve repeated on one hand—and it’s basically just a few Final Fantasy titles. Even when I say I want to replay a game before a sequel comes out (something I’m intending to do with Horizon Zero Dawn), I often never get around to it. But Mass Effect is appealing to me in a way that no new game is (or has been for a long time), and I’m certain it has to do with the difficulty of the past year. Things are rough; I’m turning to nostalgia for comfort. Which raises the question: Is this psychologically beneficial? Can Mass Effect massively affect my mental health?
In short, yes. According to Tim Wulf, who researches the effects of video games at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, nostalgia serves three essential purposes: First, he says, “it is self-oriented.” Basically, this means it helps people “feel closer to their true selves”—specifically, in this case, their pre-pandemic selves. Being in touch with who they were helps people stay in touch with who they could be, leaving them feeling optimistic about the future. Nostalgia’s second benefit is that it helps people see more meaning in their lives, and its final one is social; it “reminds people of the meaningful relationships they have and as such can counter loneliness and feelings of social exclusion.”
While Wulf is quick to note there haven’t yet been studies done on media nostalgia in the time of Covid-19, there is definitely research on how people are using entertainment to deal with life in a pandemic. One recent study, for example, found that “media is closely intertwined with well-being.” Put another way: It’s a coping mechanism people are turning to a lot these days. Recently, Wulf has been looking at the relationship between nostalgic media usage and certain stressors that have been prevalent during the pandemic. His findings so far suggest “people might turn toward nostalgia to experience relatedness that they (because of the lockdown) could not experience otherwise.”
Which brings us back to Mass Effect. This title has never just been about gameplay for me. Instead, it’s about my attachment to the characters, from Jennifer Hale’s FemShep to all the other companions that make the game worthwhile. I don’t play to win so much as I play to hang out. (In this case, it really is about the friends I made along the way.) Visiting this world when I’m feeling more isolated than ever is exactly the kind of throwback memory I need.
That’s not going to be the case for everyone, though. That’s OK. Some people are using media and video games to have new experiences because the pandemic has denied them the ability to do so in real life. When everything, every day, feels the same, why would you want to experience the familiar in your entertainment as well? Well, because everyone’s brain is different. Some people find comfort in new things; others, like me, crave the familiar. Both are fine. There are no absolutes. The most important thing is to not feel guilty no matter which way of coping works best. If you want to play the same video game every day for months on end, you can and you should. Do what feels right; try not to stress about the effects.