In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the general discourse about video games in the public and media seems to have shifted in relation to the uses and effects of games, particularly in relation to their social utility. Has COVID-19 been the impetus we needed to shift the narratives about video games away from tools for destruction and towards tools for connection?
The image of a “gamer” has conjured up images of anti-social, teenage boys living in their parents’ basement even though digital games are the dominant form of media in the 21st century. This is, at least partially, due to the sensationalized news headlines that often accompany stories about video games and those who play them. Themes of aggression and violence, addiction and anti-sociality tend to be the status quo. However, over the last year there has been a significant shift in the way games are discussed in public discourse. Headlines encouraging parents to embrace video games, touting video games’ utility as learning tools and connection.
As a video game researcher, I was happily surprised to see this shift highlighting the positive uses and effects of games. But I found myself asking, why now? Why, after 50 years of moral panic in and around games are we starting to see the perception of them shift away from tools for destruction and towards tools for connection? COVID-19.
Overnight, video games became the last socially interactive experience we could have with others from a safe distance of six feet from each other (some have even gone so far to say video games have been a saving grace of COVID-19). As awful and terrible as the last year has been, one good thing to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic (besides people keeping a 6-foot radius away from me at Costco, because that has been great): the shift in the public discourse about video games away from moral panic and towards a more nuanced understanding of what games are and are not.
As humans, we have been playing since the beginning of time. Anthropologists have found card decks and dice among the ruins in old, ruined cities . At their most rudimentary level games are about play. Play is important for human wellbeing throughout our lifespan, and crucial to creativity and happiness. Play in and of itself has also been associated with reduced depression and anxiety (see here, here, and here). All these outcomes are important but have been especially so over the last year due to the mental health crises created by the fallout of the COVID 19 pandemic.
Part of the reason that digital games are effective tools for helping mitigate mental health challenges and have been associated with broad positive outcomes is because of the role they play in mood management and repair. Mood management and mood repair strategies refer to techniques that a person can use to shift their mood from a negative mood to one of greater contentment of happiness,from sadness to happiness, or high stress to lower stress.
Games are particularly effective tools for mood management, because well-designed games engage players in a way that meets basic psychological needs as humans – they give you a sense autonomy (you are free to make your own choices), competence (that you can achieve things, be successful), and, in certain cases, relatedness (connecting with others via online play). These three components: autonomy, competence, and control are universal and thought to be essential for psychological health and well-being of an individual. Having these needs met, while also having the added element of playfulness, makes players feel good, happy, and satisfied.
This has been particularly important over the last year because the ability of people to address these three needs all hindered due to COVID 19. We have had a reduced sense of autonomy (we are not free to go wherever we want to go or do whatever we wish), competence (we are likely less efficient at our jobs or other roles, like parenting), or relatedness (increased social distancing).
The real question here is whether this shift in perceptions in and around games will maintain in a post COVID-19 world. The media is long overdue in adopting a narrative that is less moral panic and more scientific truth: video games are fantastic as tools for fun, stress reduction, and social connection (especially in times of physical distancing).