Don't ignore the many benefits of gaming

While negative habits can emerge, it is lazy to assume online games are only bad

Gamers take part in a 54-hour charity video game marathon. AFP
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Earlier this year, archaeologists in Oman discovered a 4,000-year-old game board. The rare artefact was unearthed at a prehistoric settlement in the Qumayrah Valley, close to modern-day Ayn Bani Saidah in the Hajar Mountains.

Gaming is ancient, universal and one of our earliest forms of social interaction. I imagine our distant ancestors sitting around a recently domesticated fire, some 400,000 years ago, telling stories and making up games.

Today, in the form of digital games and esports, it is more popular than ever. The recent Gamers8 festival hosted in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is a testament to that. Held over eight weeks, the event included Esports competitions with more than $15 million in prizes and dazzling demonstrations of emerging gaming technologies. I was invited to speak at the event, addressing a global audience of industry executives and esports leaders on gaming and mental health.

My message was simple: let’s enrich our understanding of gaming’s benefits and harms to promote human well-being. I was very keen to accentuate the benefits. We psychologists, and to some extent the media, have tended to focus too much on the possible harms of gaming, neglecting the potential for social good.

For example, certain sections of the media prioritise stories involving violence, conflict or death. “If it bleeds, it leads," as the adage goes. Gaming has undoubtedly been subjected to such media bias, with numerous sensationalised stories skewing public perception about harms.

Similarly, any activity with a mass appeal will attract at least a few mental health professionals who quickly see a pathological side to the behaviour. Physical exercise, shopping, social media use and gaming have all been discussed at one time or another as potential behavioural addictions or impulse control disorders.

Such perspectives, however, overshadow the fact that most gamers – the overwhelming majority – have a healthy and positive relationship with gaming. Gaming helps some unwind and have fun while enhancing cognitive, perceptual and motor skills. Additionally, overcoming in-game challenges provides a self-esteem-boosting sense of achievement. Increasingly, games also include a social element, providing many gamers with a healthy sense of belonging and social connection. In a world where loneliness is endemic, belonging is everything.

Perhaps due to negative narratives and lopsided pathology-focused research, it has almost become conventional wisdom that gaming negatively affects psychological well-being. However, several studies have demonstrated quite the opposite. More frequent gaming can, in fact, be associated with higher levels of well-being.

One study illustrating this positive relationship was undertaken by psychologists at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute and published in 2021 in Royal Society Open Science. The research team found that people who spent more time playing the popular online games Animal Crossing and Plants versus Zombies tended to have higher levels of well-being. This study is correlational, so we can’t conclude that these games directly improved well-being. However, what if future studies could demonstrate causation? Is it possible that playing certain games can help people become less anxious, stressed and more resilient?

A recent review article published in JMIR Serious Games explored the impact of commercially available digital games on levels of depression and anxiety. The study’s authors concluded that digital games show great promise as inexpensive, accessible, effective and stigma-free resources in treating common mental health issues.

Imagine if we had a better understanding of the specific elements that go into making a game potentially therapeutic or health-promoting. We could then develop games with mental health promotion in mind. The gaming industry might even intentionally contribute to addressing the mental health crisis while simultaneously making inroads into markets traditionally dominated by the pharmaceutical industry.

With the metaverse and augmented reality likely to further enhance digital gameplay, the potential for gaming to contribute to our well-being is enormous. However, we still can’t neglect some negatives.

Best estimates suggest that, globally, about 3 per cent of gamers (much higher in some nations) develop problematic habits. This gaming disorder, as the WHO has termed it, is characterised by a loss of control over gaming that negatively affects relationships and occupational performance. Researchers, in collaboration with the gaming industry, need to figure out how we can best reduce gaming-related problems and prevent them from becoming an issue in the first place.

Finally, all games are not equal. Some will have an undoubtedly negative impact on developing minds. Ensuring children are safe from age-inappropriate game content must be everybody’s business. Anybody who has ever caught their 12-year-old playing Grand Theft Auto V (certified 17+) can relate. Above and beyond parental supervision, we need innovative and humane solutions to protect developing minds from potentially damaging and hugely inappropriate gaming content.

According to a 2019 market analytics report by Newzoo, the UAE ranked 35th in the world’s top 100 gaming markets by revenue. Perhaps the 4,000-year-old game board found in Oman is evidence that gaming has been particularly popular in the region for millennia. In such a context, it is essential to ensure that gamers can reap the benefits of gaming with as little risk to their well-being as possible.

Published: September 27, 2022, 9:00 AM