Joystick of pleasure, not guilt: Gaming as mental health aid amid pandemic

From the lenses of personal experience and research, gaming has been helping people cope with anxiety and depressive states owing to lockdown confinements and social distancing

gaming, eSports, mental health, Lockdown, coronavirus, COVID-19, pandemic, video games
At a time when pandemic-related mental health issues are trending on social media, gaming is being seen in a new light — a positive light. Illustration: iStock

The perception of gaming can fall anywhere between two extremes. It ranges from US President Donald Trump partly blaming violent video games for the mass shootings in Parkland and El Paso to the World Health Organisation (WHO), — who had last year classified “gaming disorder” as an addictive behaviour — partnering with 18 gaming companies for their Play Apart Together initiative which encourages people to play video games as a means to promote physical distancing during COVID-19.

At a time when pandemic-related mental health issues are trending on social media, gaming is being seen in a new light — a positive light — and, from the lenses of personal experience and research, has been helping people cope with anxiety and depressive states owing to lockdown confinements and social distancing.

Pune-based psychologist and therapist Anupama Jha told The Federal that she has seen a spike in the number of mental health cases.

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Jha, who has worked with the Pune Municipal Corporation to support people in mental distress said, “The term social distancing has been misunderstood and has led to social isolation. There’s no opportunity to go out — to the gym, to play, to hang out with friends — and when families are confined together for months, gaming, in moderation, can help you feel connected and creates a virtual community in this time of social distancing. Although virtual, in a pandemic, it can be the break that people need from the constant stress and paranoia of the COVID-19 situation.”

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The Last Of Us, a game set in a zombie-infested post-apocalyptic world, is widely considered the game of the decade. Its emotional narrative starkly contrasts with the violence in the gameplay. The same goes for the Red Dead Redemption (RDR) and God of War series. But a statista record says that the 63 per cent spike in game sales in the first week of the lockdown was mainly of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a Nintendo game which helps ease day-to-day stress.

Time well spent, not wasted

As someone who has been gaming since he can remember and has also treated “gaming disorder” in children aged 10-17 years, Dr Saras Prasad is ideally placed to understand the effects of what is now, according to some reports, an industry bigger than Hollywood.

“It is an activity that acts as a great stimulant in a time when everything else falls flat. Unlike a music track, a game doesn’t get over in minutes. It gives one a sense of achievement, a sense of worthiness. And these can help ease anxiety and the general mood. As a doctor though, I suggest one has to work on the purpose of gaming. What kind of games you play, for how long, and on what device is a big factor in generating feelings that come from the good side of gaming,” he said.

In his experience, Dr Prasad feels that gaming should be reserved to consoles or PCs rather than mobiles, which are constantly accessible.

“The constant accessibility can become a problem if you want to use gaming as a break from the real world,” he added.

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The opinions of Jha and Dr Prasad are echoed by clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus.

“People are using video games to cope with loneliness, depression, anxiety, and even potentially addictions. Video games take up so much of your attention that they can push your anxieties away for a while. They can give you a break from it,” she says in an article on Well+Good.

Darasmus has been studying brain benefits of video games for years.

Conquer the mental health challenge

The Federal spoke to people who have experienced both mental health challenges and used gaming as a way to ease them.

Vijay Anand, a journalist with a leading English daily, said that he cannot imagine not gaming.

“Mental health concerns can become a looming black cloud over oneself. It can be very bleak. I call myself a serious gamer, it gives me the idea of escaping into a different world — just like books and movies. But what it gives me the most is the feeling of being in control, being responsible for your characters, and roleplaying games’ storylines. Some game worlds are so wildly different from ours that you tend to lose yourself in it. I don’t know where my life is going tomorrow, but I know what to do in the game.”

Anand’s mental health challenges include anxiety, insomnia, and borderline depression, for which he has been on medication for the past four months, along with taking advice from a therapist.

A big concern for those who suffer from such challenges is the new kind of triggers that the lockdown has introduced.

Escaping lockdown blues

Arjun Krishnan, a Mumbai-based lawyer, said that coping was tougher because this is a first-of-its-kind situation for everyone.

Krishnan, who lives alone, said his anxiety flared up in the initial days of the lockdown. While he’s not a conventional gamer, lockdown-favourite Ludo was his getaway to feeling connected with the outside world.

“I initially took to Call of Duty on the mobile but that didn’t really do much. But then Ludo became a big thing. It began as casual gaming and into a 16-player tournament. Eventually, we had game weeks like in the Premier League. Without this, I would’ve been idle, focusing on other things needlessly,” he said.

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“The pairing of that tragedy with the pandemic was tough. I don’t know what would’ve happened without the option to play video games. For me, it achieves the simplicity of objective-based streamlining of thoughts,” an 18-year-old engineering student, who lost his friend to suicide a month into the lockdown told The Federal.

In the lockdown period, companies came together with discounts and freebies to encourage people to play more.

Sony’s PS+ online subscription rates were slashed and Infinity Ward’s free-to-play battle-royale Call of Duty Warzone released on March 10 (across PC, PS4, and Xbox). It saw 60 million downloads in the first two months. PC video game distribution service Steam also made a series of games free.

Sahil Sharma is a game designer at Sumo Digital and has been part of popular titles such as Hitman and Forza. His dissertation was on how video games impact mental health.

“When you’re playing a First Person Shooter (FPS), in a combined mission, it’s not just about revenge. That said, there are multiple games that designers work on specifically for people who need a calming effect with objective-based stories. But the gaming industry must take more initiative in discussing how games may affect mental health,” he said.

As for gaming and its primary objective, he puts it best in saying, “Video games are like your second life. How much and how that second life is lived will determine its effects in the real one.”

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