The Impact of Video Games on Mental Health

Sarah’s daily life was riddled with worry. Each week when she came to see me for psychotherapy, she felt stricken with some new or old anxiety. As soon as we worked through one concern, it seemed as though another was just lying in wait to fill its place. She felt deadened by her mind, unable to enjoy the present or look forward to the future.

One day, Sarah* came to my office with a bemused look on her face, and mentioned she just had a curious experience. At the large media company where she worked, they had installed a virtual reality demo for employees to try and possibly write about for the company’s website. Sarah, who had barely touched a video game in her life, thought it sounded interesting. She put on the headset and launched one of the few games available, which involved exploring around the ridge of a large canyon. 

Looking over the edge of the simulated chasm, she found herself overcome with a visceral fear and awe. “I would never, ever go to a place like that in real life,” she told me. “But it wasn’t my usual anxiety, which gnaws at me about some future worry. I was scared. I felt present and alive. It was incredible.”

The Impact of Video Games

For decades video games have been cast as low-brow, corrosive distractions from real life. Despite the fact that the experiences are interactive and constantly innovating, mainstream opinion portrays them—at best—as a way for the young and immature to waste away a few hours. At worst, they’re seen as a gateway to social withdrawal and violence. 

Yet the popularity of video games is exploding as more and more people across cultures, genders, and ages are playing them each year. For some, games are just a casual pastime taken up while waiting for the bus. Others devote dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of hours to a single game. At the same time, mental health practitioners, researchers, and countless parents are expressing growing concern over video game addiction and the long-term impact of video games on gamers and their loved ones. 

Popular sentiment would have us believe that the video game is imbued with dark powers— that it taps into something primal and basic in its players, seizes hold of them, and warps them into irrational and antisocial creatures. But it’s time to shed these outdated ideas and talk seriously about the impact of video games. 

Time for a New Perspective 

Video games are too ubiquitous to be ignored and too complex to be cast as wholly good or bad. They’re neither destructors of traditional values nor the saviors of humankind. In attempting to squeeze games through such myopic lenses, popular discussion has lost track of what makes games unique, which is their potential. 

They are open worlds. Video games are virtual spaces that, rather than providing a monolithic experience for all players, instead offer a myriad of possibilities. They pander and frustrate, punish and praise. They push us to be something new and offer new ways for us to continue to be ourselves. How this potential comes to fruition depends not only on the game or the person playing, but also on the relationship that forms between the two.

Take Sarah, for instance. Many people at her office played the same game as her that day, but it’s likely that she was the only one to walk away from it feeling as though it had introduced her to a forgotten part of herself. The game didn’t cure her of her anxiety, but it did provide a new perspective on it that we were able to make use of in our treatment. 

Examining Relationships Between Games and Players 

In my work as a clinical psychologist, I’ve often observed that video games provide crucial insights that might be otherwise inaccessible to the conscious mind. But that’s only if we’re willing to acknowledge games, and accept that the relationship between a game and its player can be meaningful.

Games can act as an externalized unconscious for the player, where taboo or dangerous material can be handled and experimented with in relative safety. In our session, Sarah and I spoke of her canyon adventure similarly to how we might discuss a dream—full of multiple literal and symbolic meanings. We could understand the canyon and the giddiness Sarah felt at its edge as an instinctive reaction to heights, but also as a metaphor for her tendency to avoid certain emotional experiences for fear of losing control of herself—or, as she put it, “falling off a cliff.” 

Video games have an intrinsic dreamlike quality, bound as they are within the unreality of digital space. So many things are possible in video games, but nothing can leave the confines of the screen. Sarah and I also had to reconcile the fact that a video game isn’t the same as a dream. A game is a real thing that exists in the waking world we all share, and that requires the player’s active participation. 

Sarah didn’t conjure up the canyon metaphor purely from within the inky depths of her unconscious. It was programmed by someone else, and Sarah entered that person’s world when she began to play. The powerful feelings that the game stirred up in Sarah represented a kind of latent potential that existed in the game independently of Sarah. But on the other hand, that potential could only have been awakened by coming into contact with someone who possessed Sarah’s particular psychology.

The Role of Games in Mental Health

It’s between real and unreal, private and public, thought and behavior, where games take up their unique residence. To a dispassionate observer, game-playing can look like nothing more than a person staring at a screen, pressing buttons. This makes it easy to mistake the act as one of avoidance or escapism. But in fact, playing games may be serving a vital function for the individual’s psychological health. 

For someone like Sarah, spending time in such an in-between space can be an essential means of experiencing new ways of being. She needed the game because she wasn’t having a dream. The game brought her in contact with thoughts and feelings that neither the unreality of her inner world nor the reality of her daily life were able to generate on their own.

Of course, some people do play games precisely for the purpose of avoidance or escapism. But the point is that we cannot presume to know what the impact of video games will be on a person without looking at the unique player-game relationship. A lot of advice we come across online and in doctors’ offices regarding games and mental health is prescriptive, asserting that children and adults should or shouldn’t play games because games do or don’t cause or cure certain problems. 

These mandates are oversimplified, backed by little to no empirical evidence. They’re also given without regard for the uniqueness of the player or game. Some people may turn to games to isolate—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if that person struggles to find a sense of privacy elsewhere in life. But others rely on games for social connection.

In truth, over the 40+ years of their existence, the impact of video games has increasingly been to play a major role in helping to bring people together. Many of the young people I work with don’t make a distinction between spending time with friends in physical vs. virtual space. They are far more focused on the purpose and quality of the interaction. 

The Truth About Video Games 

Some things can only be achieved in the “real” world, like learning a new trick on a skateboard. Others can only happen in games, like building and showing off an elaborate palace in the virtual sandbox of Minecraft, or vying for victory among 100 active competitors in Fortnight. Having access to these kinds of experiences is especially important during times when physical togetherness may be unavailable, whether due to a friend moving to a new state or a global pandemic confining us all to our homes for months at a time. 

I don’t prescribe game-playing to my clients, or impose my ideas about games on them. Nor do I hand out generic factsheets about the impact of video games to concerned parents. But positive change occurs in therapy when an issue can be explored in an open and non-judgmental manner. When that issue is a video game, the focus must be on how the specifics of the game relate to the specifics of the person—their strengths, difficulties, and goals for the future. 

The truth is that games, like the people who play them, are diverse and complicated. If we resist the cultural pull to choose a side—to be either for or against games—we have a better chance of understanding our vital and evolving relationship with video games. We can understand how they show us who we are and who we could be, and in doing so help us determine the kinds of lives we want to live.

*In clinical examples, names and some details may be changed to protect confidentiality.

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