COVID-19 has changed many aspects of many of our lives. I, for one, didn’t expect this pandemic to shed new light on the video game industry. However, video games are thriving during this period of physical isolation.
As I noticed my friends, many of whom had never before picked up a controller, adopt video games into their daily routines during COVID-19, I began to research. What draws people to use video games during an international emergency? What benefits do video games provide that make them important to the public: so important that gaming shops like GameStop argue that they are essential businesses?
The answers illustrate a surprising connection between video games and health outcomes.
Video Games and Mental Health
Several outlets, like The Washington Post, have correlated responsible video game use with positive mental health. Video games can promote feelings of wellness because users can escape from real-world stress by traveling through the beautiful landscapes on their screen or channeling their energy into virtual tasks.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons, in particular, capitalizes on this connection between gaming and mental health. During physical isolation, video games have the unique capacity to bring players together. The commercial (below) emphasizes how players can “escape to an island all your own,” a particularly appealing possibility during COVID-19 when many people cannot physically travel.
That same commercial introduces another way in which video games promote positive mental health: by connecting users in the digital sphere. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is not the only video game that can reduce loneliness by encouraging players to socialize with each other. At their best, multiplayer games like Fortnite and Overwatch provide a platform where players can bond with existing friends or make new ones, with the caveat that negative gaming experiences like harassment can harm a person’s mental health. Because players fulfill a vital role in a team setting, these games may increase a player’s sense of social belonging.
A potentially surprising benefit of video games is that they can expose us to nature. Many people may imagine that video games isolate us from nature since we play games inside our homes. However, researchers have found that virtual nature environments, like physical natural settings, can have positive impacts on a person’s mental health. When we are exposed to nature, we may have lower blood pressure and stress levels. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and God of War for PS4 both contain settings that allow a user to spend time in lifelike environments. Instead of fighting monsters or moving through challenges, players may want to take a break and go on a virtual hike or meditate in these intricate forests.
Video Games and Physical Health
Medical experts have widely discussed the health risks associated with excessive gaming, including seizures, eye strain, and obesity; however, video games can also encourage us to live a healthier lifestyle when we use them correctly.
VR and Wii games encourage players to exercise in their homes. From dancing games like Dance Dance Revolution to Wii Sports to Beat Saber on your Oculus Quest, video games can help people break a sweat without worrying about the membership fees or imposter syndrome of the gym. The New York Times reports that video game creators are exploring new technologies to shake up people’s workouts. These strategies encourage users to engage with video games by using their entire bodies, not just their hands on a controller. An example of this immersive physical approach includes this video in which a player spends hours walking and running through Skyrim using a VR headset and a treadmill.[Please don’t actually spend 24 hours straight in a video game, though.]
During COVID-19, these physical games help people keep their workout routines when it’s not safe for them to physically visit a gym. You can even have fun challenging your friends to compete in new activities without investing in special sports equipment, like virtual archery.
Imagining a Future in Which Video Games are Wellness Tools
Because of their health benefits, video games are making a name for themselves outside of the entertainment industry. Even medical students use simulator-style video games to practice surgeries.
As part of a balanced lifestyle, video games can be the next big self-care strategy. If video games can help us take better care of ourselves, how can we intentionally use games as a health tool? First, we can ensure that we surround ourselves with supportive and respectful colleagues online, just as we should in the real world.
Second, we can consult with our doctors to choose physically engaging games that can help us get the exercise that works best for our bodies. Fortunately, video gaming systems are making great progress at adapting their technologies to include people who may have difficulty socializing in or exercising in public spaces, such as those with disabilities. Most importantly, we can reconsider the role that video games play in our lives. Games are dynamic, and they can entertain us and keep us healthy.