We, as a community, are very quick to talk about how games help us cope with our mental health if asked (which I did, on Twitter). Perhaps this is because we still feel like our hobby is beset on all sides by naysayers and suspicious parents, and we want to say ‘No, this is why they are so important to me.’ Many people emailed me to talk about the different ways games helped them when they were struggling to cope with things like depression and anxiety disorders – Dark Souls and Bloodborne were mentioned surprisingly often, because they gave the player a sense that they were able to persevere, progress and overcome difficult obstacles, and that was something that could translate to, for example, being able to leave home and get to class. Games have systems that you can learn and become familiar with, so you’re secure making choices in those environments. There’s less chance to say or do the ‘wrong thing’, and games can also offer ways to socialise, either as multiplayer games or by giving you something you’re confident talking about with others.
A little while ago I spoke to Dr Douglas Gentile, a developmental psychologist who specialises in the subject, about the kind of effects games can have on our brains, and one of the things he said that his studies had shown is that addiction to gaming – i.e. playing games to the extent that they negatively impact other areas of your life – can actually be comorbid with mental illnesses like depression and anxiety. Not only are many games designed to have something of an addictive play loop, if you’re using games as a coping mechanism to feel comfortable it can prevent you from recognising the problem you have, or from doing something else that might be a better way for you personally to treat the problem.
We’re still not sure what precisely video games can do to our heads. They definitely do something. When you feel a rush from playing a game that’s your brain triggering a real, chemical response in you, which is one of the reasons we like games – we can ride that tidal wave of adrenaline without being in any danger. This is also why I think it’s only a matter of time until a VR game kills someone, e.g. ‘here, Nan, have a go playing Resident Evil 7 on this VR headset I got for Christmas, this’ll be some laugh, ho ho, oh no Jack Baker’s sudden appearance has triggered some kind of cardiac event in Nan.’ More research is being done all the time, but it’s got a way to go. Hopefully we learn enough in time to save theoretical nans everywhere.