Games – and the joy they bring – date back to the Neolithic era

The caveat: playing to escape pain works differently from playing for pleasure

Children play video games in a shop in Dansha, Ethiopia, on November 25, 2020. / AFP / EDUARDO SOTERAS
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In 1989 archaeologists made a remarkable discovery at Ain Ghazal, a Neolithic site located on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan.

The find was a small rectangular limestone slab with two rows of six circular depressions in the centre. The unusual artefact did not fit into the usual categories; it was not a weapon, a tool or a ceremonial object.

The dusty stone was a 7000-year-old gameboard, evidence that prehistoric humans were gamers too.

From Neolithic limestone gameboards to 21st century circuit boards, devices have changed but the urge “to game”, however, remains timeless and is now more popular than ever.

Even before its official release on November 12, Sony’s PlayStation was breaking pre-order sales records.

A picture of the console’s new logo posted on Instagram received over five million likes, setting another record for a gaming company.

Across the world, lockdowns and quarantines brought on by Covid-19 have given gaming a boost.

CNPX69 Ain Ghazal Jordan; Neolithic statue dating from 8000-6000BC from Ain Ghazal in the Jordan Archaeological museum, Amman, Jordan
Ain Ghazal Jordan; Neolithic statue dating from 8000-6000BC from Ain Ghazal. Neolithic game board comes from the exact same site as one of the AD Louvre museum's star exhibits.

With fewer recreational options, gaming engages us in that prehistoric pastime of competition for the sake of entertainment.

Mental health pundits and social commentators though will always try to dress up extremely popular activities in psychiatric terminology.

So, in recent years, we have come up with conditions such as: binge-watching disorder, tanorexia – the addiction to tanning and sunbeds and nomophobia – the fear of being without a mobile phone.

From Neolithic limestone gameboards to 21st century circuit boards, devices have changed but the urge "to game", however, remains timeless

Digital gaming, of course, has not escaped our tendency to psycho-pathologise the popular.

In 2019 the World Health Organisation included gaming disorder as a diagnostic entity in the 11th edition of its international classification of disease. The diagnosis applies to anyone who for 12 months or more has lost control of their gaming habits.

This might be indicated by prioritising gaming over family or work, despite adverse consequences.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 19: The Sony Playstation Action Buttons are seen displayed around Oxford Circus Station  as the PS5 goes on sale in the UK, on November 19, 2020 in London, England. The first generational upgrade to Sony's line of Playstation consoles since 2013, the launch has seen pre-orders sell out within hours and websites crash as retailers attempt to keep up with demand.  (Photo by Alex Davidson/Getty Images)
FILE PHOTO: A gamer grabs for a virtual book from an empty shelf as he wears augmented reality goggles during the media day of Europe's leading digital games fair Gamescom, which showcases the latest trends of the computer gaming scene, in Cologne, Germany, August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo

Dramatic case studies and mounting research point to how gaming can occasionally reach problematic levels. Evidence from the past two decades suggests that men and younger people are most susceptible to gaming disorder, which affects around 5 per cent of the general population, according to an international study published in Addictive Behaviours in 2017.

The rapidly expanding body of research on gaming disorder also suggests that the condition is associated with physical, emotional and behavioural concerns such as insomnia, obesity, lower academic achievement, depression and anxiety and, in some cases, a financial burden due to regular in-app purchases – that is, spending money on virtual gaming assets such as weapons, lives, pets, etc.

It is hardly surprising that many nations, including the UAE, have established specialist gaming disorder clinics where people experiencing problems with gaming can seek help.

FILE - In this Thursday, Jan, 23, 2020 file photo, Nintendo Switch game consoles are on display at Nintendo's official store in the Shibuya district of Tokyo. Time spent playing video games can be good for mental health, according to a new study by researchers at Oxford University. The finding comes as video game sales this year have boomed as more people are stuck at home because of the pandemic and many countries have once again imposed limits on public life. The paper released Monday, NOv. 16, 2020 is based on survey responses from people who played two games, Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Recently, groundbreaking research led by psychologists at Oxford University has turned conventional wisdom on its head.

The Oxford study reports a positive relationship between online gameplay and psychological well-being. In other words, people who played more tended to have higher levels of well-being.

The study involved just over 3,000 gamers and looked at two popular online games – Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighbourville.

This was the first study to actually use objective industry data concerning players game-time. Most previous studies have relied on participants subjective self-reports of how many hours game-time they play each day.

Teaming up with industry partners Electronic Arts and Nintendo the research team accessed actual game-time recorded on the games’ servers.

This study represents a robust template for future research, exploring the interplay between electronic games and psychological well-being.

These findings question the notion that gaming is associated with poorer psychological health.

The observation that gaming can actually be linked with improved well-being forces us to rethink and perhaps take a more nuanced view of the subject.

For example, we need to consider the content of games, their gameplay diet, and also look at the gamer’s intention for playing. Is it a celebration or an escape?

The idea that some people might engage in excessive gaming to lift their moods makes sense.

Furthermore, those seeking help for gaming disorder frequently report using gameplay as a way of trying to fix or block unpleasant emotions. Playing to escape pain is not the same as playing for pleasure.

The stone age game board from Ain Ghazal also bore markings consistent with physical damage.

The lead archaeologist, authoring an article on the find, suggested that these additional marks might be the result of “frustration in losing the game”.

Some things never change. Even today, sore losers can still be willfully destructive.

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National