As everyone downloads Animal Crossing in an attempt to forget about coronavirus, Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray explores the surprising mental health benefits of playing video games.
Updated on 25 March 2020: There’s no getting away from all those terrifying coronavirus headlines. Every single day, the death count rises, and our Apple News notifications ping as new Covid-19 information becomes available.
Social distancing is vital to keeping the NHS from being overwhelmed with new cases, so we don’t begrudge the lockdown. However, there’s no denying that spending all of our days indoors has exposed us to far more worries.
Like, will we have enough food to see us through the next few weeks? (We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: stop panic-buying). Will our parents, and our grandparents, and our immunocompromised loved ones be OK? What will we do about our finances, and rent, and bills? Our jobs?
Ahem. Like I say, it is, in these hellish times, all too easy to let your imagination run away with you. And so, in a bid to stop my anxieties in their tracks, I have run away within my imagination to a private desert island.
Of course, you’re very welcome to visit my beautiful getaway destination as soon as you download Animal Crossing: New Horizons for your Nintendo Switch. You know, like the millions of others who have done so: it is officially the biggest single-game launch on the Switch to date.
Why? Well, because it’s good. But, also, because it’s one of the most soothing things we’ve ever plugged into. Ever.
As one fan of the game tweeted: “I know many of us need this escape more than ever right now.”
And so, without any further ado, please let me reveal the mental health benefits of playing video games like Animal Crossing.
As reported on 13 February 2018: It was a bad day at work. Not for any big reason, really: I hadn’t been fired, or given a dressing down, or accidentally sent a dodgy email to the entire company. And yet… lots of tiny little issues – much like those gritty bits of sand that get into your shoes and rub – had slowly slipped in through the cracks and worn me down over the course of the day
There was the crushing panic I felt on the tube on my way in. The heated argument I had with a colleague. The impromptu meeting which suddenly popped up in my diary, causing me to miss a deadline and work through my lunch hour in a desperate attempt to catch up. The second meeting which, despite being properly scheduled, overran by an hour and a half. The ridiculous backlog of work that built up during the 90 minutes I’d lost. The ‘can I ask you a quick favour…?’ email that pinged into my inbox some 30 minutes after I was supposed to have left the office. The ‘quick favour’ that turned out to be nothing of the sort. The ache in my eyes from staring at a screen all day. The sad little update from my FitBit, warning me that I’d failed to meet my step count. The realisation that I was already two hours late for dinner – and wasn’t going to be leaving any time soon.
The feeling that I was losing control, in a very big way.
I managed to keep on top of things in the office: as an extreme perfectionist, I work hard to keep my strong, easy-going persona and I don’t like people to see me lose control. So I pasted on a smile through the stomach ache, wrapped myself in woolly layers to ease my shivering, attempted to nod my way intelligibly through any professional conversations. Nobody had any idea how hard I was working to control my breathing and slow down my thoughts, because I didn’t want them to. And it wasn’t until I finally left work for the day that I let myself succumb to the monster in my head.
A woman spotted me in the doorway of a long-since-closed Pret and asked me if I was OK. Despite the fact that I could barely breathe, despite the fact that tears were coursing silently down my face, despite the fact I felt frozen to the spot, despite the fact my heart was pounding inside my chest, and despite the fact that I just couldn’t stop shaking, I waved her off, and told her I was fine. And, eventually, I was fine – at least, fine enough to get myself to a station, find a train and make my way home.
Thankfully, I have a not-so-secret anxiety weapon hidden in my flat: my PlayStation console.
I learned a long time ago that picking up a controller is the best possible thing I can do when I find myself trapped in a cycle of helplessness, fear and self-doubt. Why?Because, when you’re terrified of losing control, wandering through a virtual world and solving problems can remind you what it’s like to approach life from a positive, solvable perspective.
Dragon Age: Inquisition (DAI), in particular, is brilliant for this: you’re gifted the chance to design every aspect of your character before you begin playing, which means you can look and sound however you want. Once this important task is done,you wake up in the ashes of a recently-destroyed temple and are accused of murdering an influential religious figure. It’s up to you to prove your innocence to your captors and help them to a) settle the civil unrest in the continent of Thedas and b) close a mysterious tear in the sky called the ‘Breach’, which is unleashing dangerous demons upon the world.
I know, I know – it hardly sounds a stress-free experience. Especially as you have to engage in a lot of social interaction and forge friendships with those around you, as well as constantly filling requisitions to ensure your army has enough strength to withstand enemy attacks. And, in case that wasn’t enough, you’re expected to take a stance on religion and world order, and you have to pass judgement on your enemy prisoners (with pretty much e-v-e-r-y-o-n-e having something to say about the leniency or severity of your sentencing).
You also have to decide who you can and can’t trust, in order to build up a team of allies, and source the materials to craft your own weapons and armour. You need to save people from house fires – sometimes choosing between two, if time is short and you can only rescue one from a fiery death. And while the mark on your hand is slowly killing you, you’re also faced with intensely difficult life-or-death situations on a near-constant basis. And you don’t just have to fight battles,you also have to attend diplomatic balls and meetings, too.
Perhaps most stressful of all is the fact that you have the option to pursue romantic relationships with other characters, if that’s what you’re into. You have to figure out if they like you, work out the best way to flirt with them, try to maintain a good working relationship and, y’know, generally navigate all of those tricky miscommunications that give us cold sweats in real life. One “do you really have to ask?” can spell the difference between a horrifyingly awkward brush-off or an entirely unexpected ‘sex on a desk’ cutaway scene –it’s always disconcerting when you’re barely paying attention to the conversation and your character suddenly, and seemingly without warning, sheds her clothes.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that you’re viewed by some as the ‘Chosen One’, aka the only person with the power to stop Corypheus, an ancient darkspawn intent on conquering Thedas and destroying the world. Forget meeting deadlines on time – now that’s pressure.
Games like DAI, Until Dawn, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Wolf Among Us, Fallout, The Witcher, South Park: The Fractured But Whole and The Sims allow us to escape our lives and slip into a brand-new world, if only for a little while. And they’re worlds that are full of endless possibilities: we can take a stroll through a beautiful forest, or travel through time. We can lead an army into battle. We can make (virtual) friends, or engage in a beautiful romance. We can do something as silly, and childish, and impossibly irresistible as… well, as hurling a fart into a teacher’s face.
Ahem. Not that I would ever dream of doing something like that, even in the videogame world.
Yes, there’s a lot to take in sometimes, but that’s the genius of it all: when you’re playing a really good videogame, you don’t have time to worry about anything.
And it’s not just me who thinks this way: in fact, research has shown that game play really can help to interrupt the cycle of anxiety.
Dr Meghan Walker, writing for HuffPost Canada, explains that “anxiety, like pain or cravings, works on the spotlight theory of attention – the more we focus on the problem, the worse it gets”.
She continues: “Anxious thoughts fuel or perpetuate the physiological process and usually push the anxiety response from a place of assistance (think exam preparation) to a state of worry. Fear is a response to something that is actually going wrong (an important adaptive mechanism) whereas anxiety is a response to something that could go wrong.
“Video games were useful because they distracted the brain sufficiently that it shifted the spotlight and quelled the perpetuation of worry.”
In essence, playing video games breaks the cycle of attention and gives the brain better things to do than focus on potential (not real) outcomes. And, even if we feel anxious while playing a game, we become too preoccupied to imagine the worst.
Game developers are well aware of the hugely beneficial psychological effects that their work can have on players. In fact, there are several games out there specifically designed to help people through periods of anxiety.
Owen Harris, for example, has created a game called Deep. Its purpose? To lead you through a series of breathing exercises as you experience a peaceful, underwater world that responds to your inhalations. Then there’s Colour Zen, which invites you to put on your headphones, relax and find your way through an abstract world of shapes and colours (with zero penalties for failure to worry about). And let’s not forget the incredibly soothing Flower, which only asks that you gently guide petals around your screen.
Perhaps most famous of all, though, is SPARX. This clever role-paying game helps promote positive affirmations through the interactions players have within the game. By completing a series of puzzles and challenges, players can learn a number of useful skills – all of which can help with anxiety and depression.
Karolina Stasiak, whose PhD served as the pilot study for the game, tells Polygon: “The game teaches players the specific skills they need for relaxation, as well as reminding them how to do activities that bring them pleasure.
“That’s one of the problems with depression – you stop enjoying the simple things, and even things you used to like are no longer fun.”
Stasiak adds: “The game is also about reinterpreting the events around you and acknowledging that there are some unhelpful ways to think about things, and there are more helpful and positive ways.”
It definitely seems to be working: in a small study, researchers found that gamers actually saw a drop in negative thoughts after playing SPARX – no small feat.
It’s also worth noting that playing games motivates us, too – those inbuilt reward systems can help you feel like you’re achieving something, when everything else in real life feels impossible, and they encourage us to push forwards when we feel like giving up.
Or, as author and well-known gamer, Jane McGonigal, puts it: “gaming is the neurological opposite of depression.”
I, of course, agree with her. I love the sound a game makes when I’ve unlocked an achievement (I wish someone would play that inspiring musical note whenever I do anything worthwhile in the real world, to be honest), and I love the fact that – when you f**k up and fail – you can just reload your last saved checkpoint and try again. There’s got to be a clever metaphor for life in there somewhere, right?
It’s also worth noting that I’m a creature of habit, and navigating my way through all of those pre-set quest lines (even the most open of open world games have a set quest, guys) helps give me a sense of agency. Which might go some way towards explaining why I’m such an avid repeat player (I suspect I may just be the only person to have completed DAI 27 times – and, yes, I romantically pursued the same character for about 75% of those sessions. So sue me!)
Essentially, when life feels impossible, my virtual life gives me the breathing space I need to re-engage, reboot and regain my sense of self. And that has proven to be absolutely invaluable.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is often hard for sufferers to put into words. There is usually a sense of danger or threat, of not being able to cope with what might happen – a “nameless dread” that provokes such physically real symptoms it can be utterly debilitating for sufferers.
The severity of symptoms tends to vary from person to person, and can include:
- A sense of dread
- Feeling constantly “on edge”
- Difficulty concentrating
- Shortness of breath
- Panic attacks
- Heart palpitations
However, while there is still some stigma attached to opening up about our emotional wellbeing, experts urge people to seek help when they need it: anxiety, for example, is highly treatable.
If you suffer from anxiety, experts advise that you visit you GP to explore the number of treatments available.
You can find out more information – including a series of approved self-care tips – on the Mind website.
This article was originally published on 13 February 2018
Image: iStock/The Sims
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