Video gaming is no longer simply a form of entertainment, but part of a wider lifestyle embedded into the culture of 2.3 billion gamers worldwide. Gaming is undoubtedly a passion point bringing communities together, making teenagers millionaires and bringing joy to those that play.
Yet despite the benefits of gaming, it is a form of entertainment that is consistently demonized in the media. Often blamed as the contributor or primary reason for acts of violence - which in the US, had led to debates of banning games. And in 2019, we have seen video game addiction added to the classifications of mental disorder by the World Health Organisation.
As one of the biggest forms of media and with the average gamer being under the age of 30, how worried should be we for the next generations? Or, is it all just hot air? My own feeling is that while there will always be extremes of people playing for too long or young susceptible minds exposed to violence - there are wider benefits of gaming that people too often ignore.
The act of playing games leads to higher levels of dopamine (the happy hormone). It should therefore be no surprise that people use games to relax or relieve stress. The same reason people enjoy reading a book, going for a jog, or binging on their favourite Netflix series - gaming can provide an emotional release that can contribute to the overall wellbeing of that person.
Different games, or even the various modes within games, can pull the levers of various core human emotions. That feeling of self-confidence when you are the last man standing in Fortnite. The freedom to build and use your imagination in Minecraft where the world is your oyster. Giving anew-found sense of freedom and control playing FIFA where you can do something that you can't do in real life. Or being part of a clan (community) of like-minded individuals that gives you a sense of belonging.
In a world where loneliness is a key topic of mental wellbeing, the sense of belonging that gaming provides could be a solution or prevention for some. Gaming was once thought of as an insular experience - the stereotypical kids in basements, but this is not necessarily true. Co-op gaming has always been a chance to socialize with friends. Some of my fondest gaming moments are the nights spent round a TV playing games together - it is in these moments that friendships were formed.
Online gaming redefined the landscape, with people now able to play with friends or strangers from across the world instantly. While this comes with some negative experiences (the level of abuse can be toxic!) it also opens access to communities that was never possible before. A new way to connect with strangers in a safe and easy way.
Twitch, a streaming platform for games, is a great example of capitalizing on these communities. Bringing like-minded people together to not only watch content but to talk about it together or to socialize generally. While politics is a subject best avoided, you can at times find some deep conversations happening in the chat - people offering advice and support for those finding themselves in harder times.
Another example of the benefits of gaming is the power of Discord (think Skype/WhatsApp/WeChat) to bring males together. A great article on Kotaku talks about how this platform is helping keep relationships alive with men that typically find it difficult to stay in touch with their family or friends. Speaking from experience, talking on a phone can feel quite daunting as the focus is on the call. However, speaking while gaming adds an element of distraction which can make it feel much easier and less filled with anxiety.
Game developers have even tried to raise awareness of mental health disorders within the games. Life is Strange for instance, a game that revolves around the lives of high school students. When they included scenes of teenage suicide, they were quick to point gamers to directions of help and advice. Another more recent game was the award winning Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, where developers worked with mental health experts to explore and portray what it is like to suffer from psychosis. These examples are by no means perfect, but they are definitely a step in the right direction.
The marketing industry talks a lot about the role of safety and how brands should be taking more responsibility. Video gaming should be no different. With an estimated 2.3 billion gamers around the world and statistics to say that 1 in 3 people will suffer from a mental disorder in their lifetime - video gaming offers a platform to not only educate but to also help those that need it.