Authors : Mona | Basu Chandola

Expert Speak Health Express
Published on May 31, 2022 Updated 15 Hours ago
An analysis of how online gaming could have a positive effect on the mental health of an individual.
Reimagining communities: Making a case for mental health through online gaming The pandemic had compelled many to seek new socialization and entertainment avenues such as online gaming. As a result, the Indian gaming industry grew at a compound annual growth rate of 21 percent during the lockdown. On average, people in India spent about 4.7 hours daily in 2021, a rise of 27 percent from 2019. Whilst the sudden growth of gaming during the lockdowns have slowed down, there still is steady growth in online gaming in India, continually striding at a rate higher than pre-pandemic levels. Several factors, including advancements in internet access, cheap 4G internet, adoption of smartphones, improvement of gaming experiences, development of games for local preferences, availability of cross platforms games, and coming up of online platforms like Twitch and Facebook for live streaming have contributed to the steady rise of gaming in India. In light of such growth, it is essential to see the changing dynamics of these gamer communities in terms of ethics and behaviour, along with its effects on players' mental health. We’ll look into how online gaming and the rapidly emerging gamer communities can be a relief to mental health, contrary to the more dominant narrative of the negative impacts of gaming. 

The gaming order-disorder

Existing literature suggests seven motivational factors for gaming: Building social relationships; escaping from reality; competing with others; coping with distress or getting rid of stress; developing skills such as coordination, fantasy and developing in-game identities; and recreation or entertainment. These motivations can have either positive or negative connotations, and online gaming can be divaricated as both a stressor/stress-relief and as something that isolates/something that gives you connection.

Depending on how online gaming is used, it has the potential to be harmful or bestow positive psychological outcomes for the mental health of the individuals involved, and it is crucial to acknowledge the dualistic nature of gaming, like any other recreational activity. 

Unlike how “Escapism”— a need to experience relief from the constant monitoring of everyday actions—is generally used to connote a harmful and unidirectional transition to the online gaming environment, it is a temporary and bidirectional manoeuvre from reality to the gamers' world created in video games.  Based on a report, a quick escape inside video games provides an enhanced ability to cope with negative emotions, mood repair by getting satisfaction from basic needs, and better handling of external and internal stressors. It is highlighted as a trait used by proactive gamers who use gaming as a recreational activity. On the other hand, a rather extreme form of 'Escapism' is a common trait amongst problematic gamers, who will find a lack of motivation to be present in the real world and may substitute it with excessive virtual world interactions. Depending on how online gaming is used, it has the potential to be harmful or bestow positive psychological outcomes for the mental health of the individuals involved, and it is crucial to acknowledge the dualistic nature of gaming, like any other recreational activity.  The 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases defines gaming disorder as “a pattern of gaming behaviour (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.” However, experts have found that obsessive gaming may not necessarily be a disorder in isolation, but rather a more prominent invisible disease symptom. It was noted that nearly 50 and 30 percent of the people diagnosed with gaming disorders have depression and anxiety, respectively. 

Gaming communities: Real, inclusive, representative, and empathetic

During the initial period of COVID-19, communities all over the world lost physical and social attachment when the physical world shut down and went into recurring lockdowns. When social events were entirely banned in early 2020, gaming platforms like Fortnite, Roblox, and Minecraft drew several million participants to their online in-game events and concerts. These concerts tried to replicate in-person experiences by allowing people to choose avatars, chat both privately and publicly, and play role-playing games with fellow attendees. These social events brought together gaming communities focusing on communication and interaction amongst them when people were bereft of physical connections in real life. Non-gaming events on these platforms will likely draw more non-gaming audiences in the future, expanding the growth of these communities.

Gaming has helped create inclusive communities to counter issues like stigma and exclusion, which create negative mental health-related burdens in one's life.

Online games allow the players to escape inside the virtual world with the help of avatars—mediums that help gamers digitally represent themselves inside the virtual world. Such avatars can help individuals express themselves freely and accept their identities. For instance, “Forza Horizon”, a racing game, allows gamers to customise the avatar with prosthetic limbs that help give representation to amputated gamers. More features, like allowing gamers to use correct skin colour, help create an inclusive environment inside a game on the gamers’ terms, which helps them cope with the mental effects of exclusion that they feel in the real world.  Global surveys show that the expanding attraction towards e-gaming is led by the ease of finding communities that fit them. Gaming has helped create inclusive communities to counter issues like stigma and exclusion, which create negative mental health-related burdens in one's life. For instance, World of Warcraft, an online multi-player role play game, has helped a gamer to come out as transgender by providing a “safe place to explore identity”. The player set up the avatar to look the way they actually pictured themselves, which other players wholly accepted on the platform. This diversity trend is evidenced further by the expression of gender identities in new gamers, as studied by Accenture, wherein a mighty 60 percent of them were female, and 2 percent were non-binaries. The pandemic years (2020-2022) have markedly seen a bending skew of near 50 percent towards female gamers, a rather inclusive-inviting sign of the communities. Therefore, a massive driver of the motivation to join online gaming communities is brought on by social interactions—with new/old like-minded individuals owing to the feeling of security it seems to offer. Game developers are attempting to educate and make a compassionate representation of diverse people in the broader context of mental well-being,  providing an experience to the people, and helping them understand what actually happens to a person who experiences issues related to mental health. For instance, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a common mental health issue amongst soldiers who return from war. ‘Spec Ops: The Line’ is a first-person shooter game that explores the case of PTSD by making the protagonist retrospect its discussion of violent acts and gives a different take on violent shooting games like Call of Duty, where violence is embraced and promoted.

The analytical attitude developed in online games can positively influence one's real-world problem-solving skills or one's ability to grasp complex real-world problems more nuancedly.

Similarly, another video game, GRIS, deals with all the stages of grief where the character deals with a personal loss in life and goes on a journey of five stages of grief and overcoming it. Similarly, Celeste deals with anxiety with the help of strong narratives and gripping stories, displaying the challenges a person suffering from anxiety and the journey to overcome those. These games allow people to experience some of the many mental health issues which their friends and family may encounter. Gaming allows the players to escape, which in turn has a positive impact on their ability to cope and deal with stress. It can be an inexpensive, readily accessible, internationally available, effective, and stigma-free resource helping to mitigate mental health issues. Acknowledging the fact that mental health is a severe concern also shows how self-aware the online gaming subculture is of the concerns people face in the physical world. Online gaming also allows individuals to understand the complex system by experiencing them; letting the players role-play, and understanding how outcomes are affected by shifting variables. The analytical attitude developed in online games can positively influence one's real-world problem-solving skills or one's ability to grasp complex real-world problems more nuancedly.

Way forward 

COVID-19 drove audiences to not only find solace in interactions with e-gaming communities at a time of crisis, but they are expectantly hoping for it to be a more significant part of the future too. Social and socially responsible gaming will be an indispensable part of the user experience in the services offered by this industry. Moreover, the democratisation of this space is a powerful spirit. There is a need to develop a better understanding of how gaming can help bolster mental health and elements that need to be incorporated to promote the growth of pro-social behaviour through these platforms inculcating good well-being. There is also a need to remove the stigma around online gaming, and the presumption that online gaming harms mental health needs to be done away with. For safe communities to be significant to an individual's well-being, gaming needs an objective lens for analysis—away from a pessimistic, unilateral vision of potential.
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Authors

Mona

Mona

Mona is a Junior Fellow with the Health Initiative at Observer Research Foundation’s Delhi office. Her research expertise and interests lie broadly at the intersection ...

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Basu Chandola

Basu Chandola

Basu Chandola is an Associate Fellow. His areas of research include competition law, interface of intellectual property rights and competition law, and tech policy. Basu has ...

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