Video games have become an increasingly vital form of entertainment for many people over the course of the last year. They’re immersive in a way that television and books aren’t, and often engage that part of your brain that ends up aimlessly scrolling social media instead of actually relaxing. As we’ve all been at home, desperate for entertainment, video games have filled a void.
This isn’t just true for the 10-hour-Halo-marathon set, either. Casual gaming is also on the rise. People who play to burn off stress, rather than making gaming a crucial part of their identity, are joining the gamer ranks in droves. According to a recent Nielsen report, more than half of US residents played video games in 2020, and the industry as a whole earned almost $140 billion over the course of the year—a $20 billion increase from the year before.
The question is: Is this a good thing? We’ve all seen the ridiculous, alarmist articles on the effects video games have on kids. But surely at a time when stress and anxiety are rampant, relaxing with a low-intensity game has got to be a boon to an adult’s mental health. Right?
This is definitely one of those “asking for a friend” situations. Things are difficult right now. I’m trying to juggle full-time work and unstable childcare, so between weather closures and illness I’m lucky if I get one or two full days of work done per week. I’ve abandoned pretty much all of my usual stress-relief activities, but I’m finding that gaming is the one I miss the most. And that makes me wonder if the periods I don’t have time to play video games are the times I actually need them the most.
That’s not to say games themselves don’t bring their own anxieties. They do. Fighting games, shooters, very difficult and challenging titles—I would never describe these as stress relievers. But right now, all I want to do is curl up with my Switch and play the new Stardew Valley update that just hit. Or perhaps Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, a sweet game from ustwo in which players run around an island, take pictures of birds, and try to stop a developer that’s trying to turn a local nature preserve into a giant hotel. It’s super relaxing, and it just feels kind, considerate, and thoughtful in a way I need right now.
But just because it feels good doesn’t mean it’s actually doing anything to improve my mental health. Escape can be a very good thing, but when it’s used to avoid confronting problems and processing negative emotions (versus bringing down stress and anxiety levels), that’s not healthy for the long term. In recent years, there’s been a lot of research into the effects of video games on kids; not so much for adults. But that’s changing. Take, for example, the results of a 2019 National Institutes of Health study which found that video games may reduce symptoms associated with depression, while also warning that violent video games may cause spikes in adrenaline. (Those levels quickly return to a baseline after the player puts down the controller.) More recently, a study published last week in the peer-reviewed journal Royal Society Open Science found “a small positive relation between game play and affective well-being” for gamers playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants vs. Zombies.
As video games are becoming more mainstream, it’s likely that we’ll see more and more scholarship investigating the ties between gaming and mental health. The peer-reviewed journal Games for Health focuses closely on these topics, and in a recent paper collected the findings of several reports focusing on the effects of “simple, easy-to-use, casual video games” (think Plants vs. Zombies, Bejeweled 2, and Sushi Cat 2) on stress, anxiety and overall mental health. Of the 13 studies reviewed, 12 showed positive outcomes for those playing games. “All studies that examined mood and stress noted significant improvements when compared with a passive break, surfing the web, or a relaxation activity,” the paper concludes.
“There are many benefits for adults in playing video games,” says Megan Connell, a psychologist who specializes in gaming. “They can be a way for us to relax, engage in stories, to connect with friends and family, or to just have fun.” Her words were encouraging. So were her thoughts on my beloved Switch pastime: “For many adults I work with, I recommend games such as Stardew Valley as a good game to play for self-care. I find this game helpful as there are goals, yet there isn’t stress or pressure to get to all of the goals. There are also many different ways to play and there isn’t one that is better than any other.”
This is key. Sometimes, I can find the idea of an open world, where I can do anything, overwhelming. But when my anxiety is incredibly high, playing a game that doesn’t have set goals is very rewarding and cathartic. When I’m overwhelmed, I often revisit older games as well. Losing myself in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, gathering ingredients and making recipes instead of playing the actual game, is often an incredibly relaxing way to spend my evenings.
But that doesn't mean there still isn't a stigma about adults playing video games. Even Connell—who incorporates gaming into her practice, running Dungeons-&-Dragons-focused therapy sessions to empower young women and help military veterans process trauma—sees this. “Adults who play are seen as not acting adult-like, and thus we have to find reasons that legitimize our play, such as playing to connect with our children, or as part of a team building activity,” she says.
But we’re finally starting to see that, on the whole, video games can be beneficial for lots of age groups. “More and more research is showing us that play is incredibly important to a well-balanced life,” Connell says. Now if we could only find a way to balance everything else, too.