How Video Games Can Help Alleviate Anxiety

Katie Elsaesser
Games
Games

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to surge throughout the states, many are facing the potential of yet another lockdown, and the idea of more restrictions is causing another wave of stress throughout the country. Not to mention the societal issues that are taking the country by storm, and causing social media wars throughout. Needless to say, there’s a lot to be anxious about. With anxiety amping up, people are looking for distractions to ease the tension and bring some form of escape, and as VentureBeat noted recently, many are turning to gaming.

Whether gamers are knee-deep in traversing the island of Tsushima or devoting long hours to collecting more bells in Animal Crossing: New Horizon, gaming has afforded players a safe haven from daily woes. In preparation for this article, I spoke to several professional practicing psychologists to get their opinion on gaming and whether it was a positive way to relieve stress. Most professionals agreed that there were certain advantages, but with a few parameters.

All professional psychologists interviewed echoed the same sentiment that if gaming inhibits day to day activities — for example disrupting work, personal hygiene, income, socializing, or just meeting basic needs — then that’s when gamers have to worry. With recent comments from the likes of Joe Rogan claiming that video games are a giant waste of time, some have wondered if a favorite pastime is doing more harm than good. As Dr. Dustin Weissman, PsyD and the Founder and CEO of Digital Addiction Recovery Center, puts it so eloquently:

“It comes down to how the person plays the game and not letting the game play the person.”

But with a pandemic already disrupting our daily flow, how much gaming is too much gaming under these new circumstances?

For many, gaming has provided a digital way to safely socialize with friends and family, although it is far from replacing the real thing. With what I’m unofficially dubbing “Zoom Fatigue” or the exhaustion from Zoom hangouts and FaceTime calls, our capacity to digitally socialize has taken a toll on people. However, games can often provide short term goal achievements that help players feel more of a sense of control in this increasingly out of control world.

Health and Gaming

Video games have often been at odds with health professionals, but that may be starting to change as a variety of video games have matured. The World Health Organization recently classified “Gaming Disorder” as an addiction on par with substance abuse. The result drew some skeptics and turned into several hilarious memes from the gaming community.

One Does Not Simply
Awkward Monkey

It wasn’t until the Covid-19 pandemic started that the W.H.O. actually encouraged people to stay at home and start gaming. The sudden encouragement felt slightly tone-deaf after many professional publications touted a never-ending list of reasons to stop playing video games, especially violent video games. In fact, most research on video games and their effect on society has been geared towards the negative aspects of gaming. That is, until recent years.

In a paper published in The American Psychological Association in 2014, the authors suggest that this perspective is a huge mistake, and video games deserve a more balanced view by studying their positive impact as well. Although the paper was mainly focused on the health benefits and detriments for adolescents, and a great portion of research has been devoted towards the effects of violent video games. However, Dr. Jessica Cail, PhD in pharmacology, scientific consultant for Marvel and professor at Pepperdine, says that even violent video games have shown to reduce stress in certain ways.

“In a research study lead by Nicholas Carnagey, participants played violent or nonviolent video games, then watched a violent movie, while having their heart rate and skin sweat recorded. Those playing violent games showed greater heart rate and skin sweat while they were playing the game (they were playing a more stimulating game after all) but when they later watched the violent movie, they showed LESS response than the other group.”

Although desensitization is the last thing many of us need right now, it may be a useful tool as we try to wade through the dreaded “doom scroll” of the news each day. Violent video games may amp up our heart rate, but in limited doses, they can provide a valuable strength to wade through all the information objectively.

Emotional Interaction

The recently re-released Journey.

In the past, a majority of psychological research on gaming has been devoted to dissecting violence in video games, but there is very little literature devoted to games that are nonviolent or ones that have creative mode options.

Take, for example, the game Journey, recently re-released for free on PlayStation at the start of the Covid-19 outbreak in the US. Journey is a simplistic game and story told without any dialogue. Players are sometimes paired with other gamers, but there is no way of communicating with the other player, save for a few body language movements of the avatar, and a small “chirp” that the player can emit.

Journey is about an emotional connection between people, and it’s about the simulation of life,” said Journey and Sky creator Jenova Chen.

Chen is a big advocate of Flow Theory, which is a form of positive psychology encouraging the participants to be fully and mentally present in the task at hand. Chen describes most games as a physical interaction — for example, players shooting each other in the head — whereas his approach is more of an emotional interaction. It is this kind of gaming logic that could help both non-gamers and gamers alike in relieving the unending stress.

Flow Theory Chart
As found on Chen's website

Toni Cicatello is a practicing Marriage and Family Therapist based in Los Angeles and she encourages her clients to move their bodies while gaming. She explains how the lack of movement might be a downfall for most gamers during hours of gameplay.

“It encourages the release of dopamine. I remember when I was a kid I would play at the pinball machine, and I loved the music it would play! I had to move my body a lot to move the machine. It was fun, exciting, and challenging and it helped me to calm myself down.”

An excellent game that keeps players moving and rock out with some original music is the VR mega-hit Beat Saber. At the beginning of the pandemic, Beat Games released the free additional song “FitBeat” to encourage players to work out safely at home.

The song is incredibly catchy and if players haven’t broken a sweat in the first few seconds, then they may want to up the difficulty level.

Social Gaming

Social gaming has also proven to be a valuable asset in recent months. Co-op games like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Call of Duty: Warzone have noticed an exponential increase in players and even broke 20 million simultaneous players. However, socializing in games like this can prove to be fairly limited as players can not see the other person or emote any kind of body language.

As another alternative, some players have taken to streaming games like JackBox TV on a Zoom call with screen share so that all players can talk and converse as though they were in the same room together.

Other companies are learning to mold and adapt to new demands of the pandemic and provide a service for remote team building like The Go Game. The Go Game is a company based in San Francisco who promoted in-person team-building exercises but have recently found a new calling by moving their games to a fully original online platform.

To be frank, we all may have an increase in self-indulgent behavior at the moment as the world continues to react to this pandemic. The only issue is how long we productively use these distractions, and whether we use them as a replacement.

Gaming as a Substitute,
Not a Means of Replacement

There is always a concern when introducing video games as a method of distraction, that it might promote unhealthy addictions. But for a vast majority of players, this is easily avoidable with the right mentality.

Megan Jade Ries is a Mental Health Therapist specializing in Chemical Dependency based in Minnesota and knows full well the plight of the modern adult gamer.

“Gaming doesn’t have to be viewed as some negative device that is destroying our youth, but there are precautions I look for in clients. Have I ever stayed up playing a game all night with little regard for the next day, opted for a Mountain Dew, skipped a shower, and went right back in? Hell yeah, I have! Just like with any use or addiction, I always look at the bigger picture and come back to quality of life, however they perceive it.”

So what exactly is a “Gaming Addiction,” and are we all addicts now thanks to the pandemic? The answer is more than likely no. Any form of addiction, whether it’s substance abuse or otherwise takes a much larger toll than wasting a few hours in front of a screen. Dr. Weissman puts it like this:

“I would define video game addiction as an individual’s inability to meet their social, emotional, physiological, vocational, and/or familial needs over the drive to engage in playing one or more video games. The six factors exhibited are: Salience, Mood Change (Euphoria), Tolerance, Withdrawal, Conflict, and Relapse.”

The definition of a “Gaming Addiction” may seem daunting, and many of us may be reconsidering how much we’ve devoted to video games in the past few months, but the pandemic has not changed this definition as a whole. For Dr. Cail it’s less about the amount of hours as much as the reason for gaming. As she put it, “This is why we psychologists agree that, regardless of what a user’s particular addiction is, the ‘line’ is the point at which use has begun to negatively interfere with that person’s life. This definition holds for drugs, alcohol, sex, or gaming.

Dr. Laura Holt of the University of Missouri – St. Louis is a practicing psychologist and outreach coordinator who wants gamers to keep in mind that gaming can be fun, even with the highly stigmatized research, but gaming should never be a replacement for the fundamentals.

“In moderation, video games are a great way to relieve stress… But video games can’t take the place of journaling, meditating, or talking with a loved one or therapist.

This was a sentiment echoed by nearly every psychological professional. A healthy balance of exercise and sleep are integral to a fully functioning person. The dopamine released in gameplay can provide a natural high to players, but the less sleep and exercise a person gets, the more they will need to game in order to achieve that high. It’s here that gamers should start to question the amount of gaming and whether video games have become more than just a simple distraction. Dr Dustin Weissman had this to say about mobile gaming:

“When I notice that I play a game for too many hours on my phone, I delete it. I do this because I understand the addictive nature and design of some of these games and want to use my time in more productive ways… This is a great time for people to start that project that they have been delaying because they ‘haven’t had the time to do it.’”

Dr. Cail also admits that, for the most part, the pandemic hasn’t changed her view on how to deal with stress. She may not be running for the controller after a long day, but she does recommend reinvesting in physical activity.

“The immune system is highly connected to stress, and we all need our immune systems working at peak efficiency right now. We may not be able to hang out with friends, or go to the movies, or have a big party, but there are still plenty of other things to stay healthy, both physically and mentally. If you find video games to be relaxing and fun, you be you.”

Gaming can be a helpful tool when it comes to de-stressing at the end of the day. Alternative socializing is an effective way to reconnect with people, but players should keep in mind that gaming is just one of many ways that people can cope with daily stress. There are plenty of resources for people dealing with stress that is more than just the daily news. Below are links to help those searching for more information.

National Helpline – free service – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255

TalkSpace – www.talkspace.com


A great big thanks to the following doctors who provided their valuable input while sharing their expertise:

Dr. Dustin Weissman – Dr. Dustin Weissman specializes in internet addictions. His dissertation on online gaming and social factors has been downloaded globally from 87 countries. Dr. Weissman is the founder of the subfield of psychology, Cyberneuropsychology. He holds 3 board positions with VCPA and one with MHPCV. Dr. Weissman also hosts a free podcast, CyberSense Power Up, available on most podcast platforms.

Dr. Jessica Cail – Dr Cail has a PhD in psychopharmacology and is a professor at Pepperdine University. Featured on NOVA’s Secret Life of Scientists for her dual life as a scientist and a stuntwoman, she also serves as a consultant for the National Academy of Science’s Science & Entertainment Exchange. Through the Exchange, she has consulted for television shows including Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, as well as upcoming episodes of the show Claws, and TBA films from Escape Artists, Phantom Four Productions, and Joe Robert Cole (Black Panther). She is currently co-authoring the 3rd book in the Hollyweird Science series with fellow scientist and scientific consultant Dr. Kevin Grazier.

Toni Cicatello is a practicing Marriage and Family Therapist based in Los Angeles.

Dr. Laura Holt is a practicing Psychologist and Outreach Coordinator at University of Missouri-Saint Louis.

Megan Jade Ries Masters of Science and Licensed Professional Counselor based in Minnesota.

Katie Elsaesser
Katie is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. Will do almost anything for pizza. Almost.