There’s no doubt that the pandemic changed how we consume media. Streaming subscriptions boomed, for example, leading to both heady economic forecasts for the industry and warnings that too much television can hurt your mental health and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Video games were another popular coping mechanism. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the estimated number of American gamers climbed from 214 million to 227 million — about two-thirds of the population — and 55 percent said they played more during the pandemic. Gaming was cited as a stress reliever, a distraction, and a way to spend time with friends and family, whether they’re in the same household or on the other side of the world. Surveys suggest that gaming made people happier and less isolated during lockdown.
However, data also suggest that more people are gaming excessively to cope with anxiety, depression and other stressors brought about by the pandemic. Mental health clinics, both general and specialized like the UK’s National Centre for Gaming Disorders, have seen spikes in patient referrals. While the vast majority of gaming is unproblematic, it isn’t hard to find stories of people who let their health, finances and careers slide into disrepair because gaming became the only way to cope with their problems.
A Question of Control
Video game addiction is a contentious subject. Once the source of scaremongering tales about parents playing for days while their children starved, there’s now some denial that it’s a problem at all. When the World Health Organization added gaming disorder to its International Classification of Diseases — essentially an international medical bible — in 2018, disputers argued that excessive gaming to be merely a symptom of larger issues.
The scientific nuances will likely continue to be debated, but in the meantime, some people do need help with cutting back on their gaming. Andrew Fishman is a Chicago-based therapist who specializes in game-related issues among adolescents; he sees gaming as both an excellent way to cope with problems and the potential source of a problem if taken too far.
“The pandemic was terrible for global mental health,” Fishman says, adding that he was unsurprised when all kinds of mental illnesses, including gaming addiction, flared up. “The world was scary, lonely and unpredictable, and video games weren’t. However, video games helped many people stay connected. I regularly spend time playing video games with friends to stay in touch. It’s helped me protect my mental health.”
Gaming, essentially, offers control. A 2021 study from the University of Buffalo argued that games produce “a stronger feeling of ownership of the virtual environment compared to other technology,” such as watching YouTube. And games tend to reward your time; if you put a certain number of hours into a game, it will spit out a certain number of achievements back at you.
“Every major game company now hires behavioral psychologists to make sure that their games are as engaging as possible and use as many psychological tricks to keep people playing as possible,” Fishman says. One of the most obvious, he says, is the “season pass” — an optional fee paid every few months to participate in a game’s latest activities and earn the newest rewards. “This system is designed to exploit our natural fear of missing out — what 13-year-old wants to hear their friends talking about a new event that they missed by not paying for the newest season?”
Fishman argues that “this ‘weaponized FOMO’ naturally leads to addictive behaviors. It makes sense to stay up a little later or skip a homework assignment to participate in an event that might never happen again.”
Elsewhere, time spent with a new hobby isn’t guaranteed to pay off. You might always stink at the guitar, no matter how hard you try to master it. But games provide a steady stream of rewards and encouragement. Studies suggest that while gaming improves a person’s ability to focus on tasks, and hones their visuospatial skills, it also leads to functional and structural changes in the neural reward system. Basically, once a game rewards you, you’re going to crave more rewards.
It’s why the authors of that University of Buffalo study advise gamers worried about addiction to try playing games on easier or even harder difficulties: “… because achievement motivation is one of the greatest predictors of online gaming addiction, and since easy modes are not competitive and hard modes are tough to master, they reduce the likelihood of players getting hooked.”
All Good Things in Moderation
Again, this doesn’t mean that every gamer is on the verge of transforming into a gaming junkie straight out of a bad CSI episode. “I almost never recommend that people stop gaming entirely,” Fishman says. “Taking them away can be harmful to a person’s social life, self-esteem or ability to cope with the outside world. The goal is to enjoy gaming in addition to the rest of your life, not for gaming to replace it.”
But when problematic gaming does occur, what does it look like? “Regularly playing video games instead of sleeping, going to work or spending time with loved ones is worrisome,” Fishman explains. “Some people will not be able to cut back on the amount of time they spend gaming to restore balance.”
In these scenarios, Fishman suggests enhancement over detraction. “People who want to change, or parents who want to help their children, should try to add activities, not just restrict games,” he says. “Use your interests to diversify your schedule. Join a casual sports team, take an art class, join a book club, learn to code or schedule time with friends outside. Interesting hobbies generally fill space in our lives without much effort and can help us meet our needs in healthy ways.”
Like the WHO, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders refers to the problem as “gaming disorder.” The distinction comes from the fact that very few people build a tolerance for gaming marathons or suffer withdrawal when they quit, at least in the same sense that drug addicts or alcoholics do. Gaming can become an “obsession,” something you pursue to the detriment of the other elements of your life.
That may sound like hairsplitting, but Fishman notes that the media’s portrayal of problematic gaming can affect our perception of it. “Many articles are published by researchers who do not play video games themselves, and as a result see only harm. I also read many articles by industry apologists who only recognize positive aspects of games, discounting evidence that they can also be harmful,” he says. “I would like to see more articles that either focus on a specific aspect of gaming or acknowledge both their benefits and downsides.”
In short, as numerous studies continue to look at the benefits — and potential for obsession — of gaming during stressful times, it’s important for players to balance the fun of gaming with the other elements of their lives. Neither a boogeyman to be scapegoated for any ill, nor a hobby above all reproach, gaming is a great way to keep your brain engaged … to a point.