This series of articles explores the current clinical research that exists around the benefits that playing video games can have for wellbeing. Wherever we can, we have linked to a free full version of the publication, and otherwise have referred to its abstract.
Today we’re looking at the topic generally – how and why is it that games can have an emotional and psychological impact?
1. Games Can Improve Mood
Ryan, R M, Rigby, C S & Przybylski, A; The motivational pull of videogames: A self-determination theory approach, Motiv Emotion, 2006: vol. 30, pp. 347-363
This paper is a really important one that explores how the mechanics of video games can relate to a well-established model of wellbeing in psychology: Self-Determination Theory (SDT).
SDT describes that human motivation and fulfillment are linked to three domains:
- The feeling of being in control of your actions, able to make decisions and even to have your own thoughts.
- The sense of achievement by being able to complete necessary tasks – this means there needs to have also been a challenge involved.
- The ability to relate to others, whether it be in direct social interactions or by feeling like part of a community.
What the authors explored in their study was whether the play of video games activated these domains, and the impact that had on the player themselves. They did four different studies in total, each looking at different types of games and letting the participants play different numbers of games.
They found that whilst playing games which activated autonomy and competence, participants’ wellbeing improved after playing.
In particular, this was maximised when the game controls themselves were intuitive and the players felt immersed in the experience.
They also found that playing online activated feelings of relatedness – interestingly, the extent to which this was beneficial actually depended on the player’s attitudes about the game. Those who were obsessionally playing showed less improvement at the end of the study.
2. Games Can Cause Relaxation
Russoniello CV, O’brien K, Parks JM. EEG, HRV and Psychological Correlates while Playing Bejeweled II: A Randomized Controlled Study. Stud Health Technol Inform. 2009;144:189-92.
This team looked at the physiological and biological response within a person’s brain and body when they played a game. They got one group of people set up with Bejeweled II, and another group were put in the same environment (but not playing a game).
They measured brain waves (EEG) and heart rate variability – both things we have good understanding of when they relate to mood and stress levels.
They found that the subjects playing Bejeweled II showed that their mood improved, and their levels of physical stress decreased.
Snodgrass JG, Lacy MG, Francois dengah HJ, Fagan J, Most DE. Magical flight and monstrous stress: technologies of absorption and mental wellness in Azeroth. Cult Med Psychiatry. 2011;35(1):26-62.
This team were interested in how the levels of immersion in games correlated to the player’s wellbeing.
The authors used interviews and survey data with players of World of Warcraft. They discussed with them how they felt emotionally about the character they were playing as in game, and particularly whether they personally identified with the avatar in relation to their real life self. They hypothesised that achieving a dissociative state could have potential to be positive for player wellbeing, provide relaxation, and encourage positive stress.
As well as looking at improvements, they were also looking for possible harm done – for example, by becoming obsessive or addictive with play.
Wack E, Tantleff-dunn S. Relationships between electronic game play, obesity, and psychosocial functioning in young men. Cyberpsychol Behav. 2009;12(2):241-4.
This is a great article which was probably trying to prove the opposite to what it found. The team collected data from and about over 200 young men in college. They looked at their weight and BMI and how many hours per week were spent playing video games, as well as how well they were doing academically.
They found that there was no significant relationship between how long the participants spent playing games and their BMI. This was true even for the highest frequency players, who were playing about 35 hours of games per week. There was also no relationship between game play and grades.
Interestingly what they did find was that the participants reported games were able to help them cope with feelings of boredom, loneliness and stress, and that their wellbeing improved because of this. The study ultimately states that this cohort actually were using video games to socialise, relax, and cope.
3. Games Can Reduce Stress and Anxiety
Király O, Urbán R, Griffiths MD, et al. The mediating effect of gaming motivation between psychiatric symptoms and problematic online gaming: an online survey. J Med Internet Res. 2015;17(4).
This study set out to explore the link between trauma, distress, and problematic online gaming – a term that has been used to describe gaming addiction. They also investigated whether there were any factors about the player that could be protective against gaming addiction, or make gaming addiction worse. These factors included the type of game played, gender, and the motivation for playing the games.
They surveyed over 3000 people – 90% of them identified as male. They almost exclusively investigated MMORPGs.
They found that, in players who had high levels of distress, playing for escape and playing for competition was more likely to be associated with gaming addiction.
To contrast with this, playing to cope with psychiatric symptoms in and of itself – not to escape from them – was protective. These players were able to use games to reduce levels of stress and anxiety without it becoming problematic.