Image Credit: Courtesy of Javier Martinez for Unsplash
Since their inception, questions have been raised as to how video games fit within people’s lives, how much time spent gaming is too much time, and how this can affect people in the long run. Some have seen video games as entirely positive, capable of teaching entirely new skills with no drawbacks whatsoever. Others have blamed them for society’s ills, children’s desensitization to violence, and the hobby that caused their children to become obese while achieving no tangible goal outside of what happened on a screen.
“Games have sometimes been praised or demonized, often without real data backing up those claims. Moreover, gaming is a popular activity, so everyone seems to have strong opinions on the topic,” says Marc Palaus, first author of “Neural Basis of Video Gaming: A Systematic Review,” a collection of summarized results from 116 scientific studies that worked to determine how video games can influence human brains and behaviors. The findings of this review were published in the May 2017 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
Following the beginning of the pandemic and the mandatory lockdown that kept most of the world, with the exception of front-line workers, at home for a year, University of Maryland students experienced a new kind of stress they might never have thought possible. Life had moved indoors with few exceptions, and even students who’d been able to move to campus were essentially trapped in their apartments or dorm rooms, not knowing how long this would continue, until vaccines could be developed, tested and distributed.
A number of students found themselves turning to video games as a form of anxiety and stress relief, with people building video game times into their day along with other stress-relieving activities such as getting outside, exercising, and talking to friends and family. Even if video games might not have been a priority prior to the pandemic, they now found a place in the schedules of many. Through video games and Discord (a communications program favored by video game fans that supports text, audio and video chat), students found the communities and social interaction the lockdown had denied them.
“When the lockdown occurred, it affected my social life because I wasn't able to go out and see my friends. However, I was able to make friends with people who played the same game as me,” said Jane Mendez, a sophomore working towards a bachelors in economics. “We would play and talk to each other on Discord and it has helped my mental health so much. Not only are video games good for your social life, it is also a good stress reliever.”
In the case of the military, video games are currently being looked into as a method that could make a difference to the mental health and recovery of veterans returning home from war. A Veterans Affairs study, titled "Connection, meaning, and distraction: A qualitative study of video game play and mental health recovery in veterans treated for mental and/or behavioral health problems,” which appeared in the November 2018 issue of Social Science and Medicine, explored how a small sample group of veterans suffering from mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse disorders improved after incorporating video games into their daily schedule.
In the study, the video game genres included sports, puzzles, gambling, role-player action, fantasy settings and shooter games.
Michelle Colder Carras, one of the organizers of the study, said that the genre or specific game isn’t necessarily what helped with recovery. The benefits, she said, stemmed more from the connections the veterans made with other video game players; the distractions they created for themselves by playing the games and removing their focus, for example, from alcohol or drugs; and the meaning they derived from the games.
Other mental health practitioners offered a similar take, but offered some warnings along with their recommendation.
"I’ve used gaming for stress relief all my life,” said Ellis Wood, a life coach and cognitive behavioral therapy practitioner from Cleveland, Ohio. “The main issue is, as with all stress relief, when a relief becomes an addiction. Like any addiction it can be very disruptive to relationships, work and other aspects of life."
For Nathan Stephens, a lecturer at UMD’s Merrill College of Journalism, video games have been a passion since 1981, and are something he sees as a means of temporary relief for his students.
“Over the years, I had several students who suffered from depression and anxiety, and that was prior to the pandemic,” recalled Stephens. “Once the pandemic hit, I didn't want them stuck inside all day and trapped on Zoom doing work without some sort of contact. Video games and Dungeons and Dragons played a huge role to help stymie those issues.”
Stephens went on to point out that video games have become an “entertainment epicenter in which students can come together and turn that valve in their life to relieve the burden of stress that they collect each day,” and cited a regular meeting that takes place every Wednesday evening at 4:30 p.m. in Tawes Hall wherein students get together to play games such as Among Us, Jackbox and Minecraft online.
“They talk and kid with each other during the game streaming sessions, which helps them get all of that tension and stress out of their lives, if not only temporarily. It's a good escape for everyone…gaming is a perfect way to make this all happen,” Stephens said.
For senior journalism major Char Freedberg, video games became part of a routine that helped her avoid stress and get through the lockdown.
“What I do for relieving a lot of my stress? Two things. One: Plenty of naps. Naps are my coffee. But the other one is, I try to go on a Discord call and relieve my stress in that way,” said Freedberg. “It's nice to talk to people and laugh about the lockdown situation. And it does make me forget, in a way, that I am living in a pandemic all cramped up, because when I'm interacting with people online, it feels nice. It feels like I actually have a social life.” How much time to budget for video game sessions in a given day is entirely subjective, and changes with the individual.
“People have different workloads, so it really depends on the person,” said Taseen Abdulrafee, a senior computer science major. “For most people, it can be a form of stress relief, but it shouldn't be something they spend a lot of time on. I think that video games are fine to play for a few hours a day at most, to take a break from your everyday tiring life and immerse yourself into a new world.”
There’s no recommended amount of time to devote to video games throughout the day, and no specific game that can be recommended to help deal with the stresses of COVID-19, post-pandemic, or academic life. But there’s also a near-infinite number of video games out there, as well as software such as Discord and other forms of voice and video chat that allow for a social gaming experience and a means of reaching out to both old and new friends alike. There’s something for everyone out there, and if you can find something that helps you decompress after a long day, so much the better.