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How video games have impacted players’ well-being during the COVID-19 lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted virtually all aspects of our lives, with the associated lockdown restrictions affecting how we work, socialise, shop and study.

Inevitably, such wide-ranging changes to our day-to-day lives have raised questions about well-being and how we cope with these unusual and uncertain circumstances. In this newly-published study, we explore anecdotal reports that suggest many have turned to playing video games during the pandemic.

We identify seven ways in which games have affected players, such as providing cognitive stimulation and opportunities to socialise, and a variety of benefits related to mental health, including reduced anxiety and stress. In the excerpt below, three of these seven themes are explored: mental health, stress relief, and escape.

The full paper, published in Games and Culture, is freely available at https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/15554120211017036.


Mental health

I got really anxious around the time of COVID outbreak in the UK and in Portugal (where my family is). Games have always helped with anxiety as they give me something else to focus on. (P32)

(P32)

The data include many references to gameplay improving mood: “having the time to engage in something I enjoy has had an overall positive improvement on my mood” (P171); keeping players grounded: “I feel video games have had a positive impact on my well being and have helped me ground myself” (P250); and, keeping players sane: “Animal Crossing was like therapy that saved my sanity” (P514). There are also similarly non-specific references to games as a coping mechanism: “I think it allowed me to cope with the lockdown better” (P108). Relatively few respondents identified specific conditions such as depression here, but many respondents linked playing games with a reduction in anxiety: “Playing games helps with my anxiety. I especially love playing Red Dead Redemption 2 as it relaxes me and eases my anxiety so it’s my go to” (P735); “It kept my anxiety in check” (429); “I feel much less anxious than if I had been spending the equivalent amount of time on social media absorbing bad news instead” (P76).

Red Dead Redemption 2 - Rockstar Games
Red Dead Redemption 2 – Rockstar Games

Games’ potentially positive effects on mental health are already well documented, and the mechanisms by which these effects have also been explored. For example, Csikszentmihalyi’s flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991) is a state of optimal experience that is frequently ascribed to video games, which offer a flow-inducing balance of challenge versus achievement (Sweetser and Wyeth, 2005; Klimmt et al., 2007; Chen, 2007). By ensuring that games continually present players with challenges that are commensurate with their current skill level, they are designed to have a positive effect on players’ mood, to be enjoyable to play. Indeed, games’ capacity for restorative effects on mood have been demonstrated in experimental studies (Bowman and Tamborini, 2012; Rieger et al., 2014). Thus, it is perhaps unexpected that participants here reported that playing video games had an ameliorative effect on their mental health.

Stress relief

I generally focused on more feel-good games to begin with, like Stardew Valley or Harvest Moon. […] As for well-being, I play games to chill out and relax, hence the feel-good style. That has helped immensely with COVID and other world issues at the moment, so it’s absolutely had a positive influence on my well-being.

(P89)

Closely related to Mental health, but prevalent enough to warrant a theme in its own right, were responses that referred to games’ capacity to calm: “My mind sinks into the game and there’s no time to worry about the outbreak. It can really calm me down” (P190); relax, or de-stress: “Playing them has relaxed me or at least kept stress at bay” (P241); “I’ve felt more creative and less stressed after playing video games” (P447); ‘I find playing video games enjoyable and relaxing, taking time out to play games can mean I return to what I was doing in a less stressed frame of mind” (P227). It is unsurprising that stress relief is also linked to the enjoyment that games bring: “It’s definitely a stress relief, and provides entertainment when other sources are shut down” (P688).

Stardew Valley (ConcernedApe)
Stardew Valley – ConcernedApe

Evidence for games’ capacity to help players ‘de-stress’ may also be found in the literature. One study, for example, found that games were used by players to recover from exposure to stressful situations (Reinecke, 2009). Elsewhere, players have reported stress relief as an unexpected side effect of playing games (Barr, 2019). Participants here are certainly aware of video games’ stress relieving properties, whether they have consciously chosen to play games for this purpose, or if the benefits have only become apparent in retrospect.

Escape

The impact has been positive. As an outlet for engaged escapism video games have been a perfect fit for the times, with ‘better’ uses of leisure time being off limits. With the breadth of video games available, even on consoles, the ability to pursue diverse experiences and mindsets has been extremely valuable while otherwise stuck inside.

(P93)

Much of games’ capacity to reduce stress stems from their function as a distraction or escape, for example: “Video games have been a good escape when feeling stressed about the pandemic” (P560). However, the benefits of being able to ‘escape’ the pandemic extend beyond reducing stress, as the numerous and variegated responses grouped under this theme demonstrate. For example, one participant, shielding a family member diagnosed with cancer, states “The escapism from the current situation is helping as my attention isn’t focused on COVID or going on social media and feeling negatively about others’ perceptions of keeping safe” (P84). Other responses include: “I would have really struggled without the distraction” (P79); “Provide a good distraction from everything going on” (P170); “Definitely had a positive impact. It’s allowed me to escape from reality for a time” (P197); “Games provide an escape from the world for a limited time. They create a distraction from everything and also it is good exercise for the brain” (P310).

Escapism, or the ability to become immersed in another world, is a well-established motivation for playing games. In the 1950s, Roger Caillois identified mimicry as one of four ludic activities that characterise games, referring to how the player “escapes the real world and creates another” (Caillois, 1958/1961). More contemporary work on video games, specifically, has also revealed escapism as a motivation for play (Yee, 2006; Ghuman and Griffiths, 2012; Scharkow et al., 2015), suggesting that the ability to immerse oneself in another world is appealing to players irrespective of a global pandemic.


Barr, M., & Copeland-Stewart, A. (2021). Playing Video Games During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Effects on Players’ Well-Being. Games and Culture. https://doi.org/10.1177/15554120211017036

Works cited

Barr, M. (2019). Reflections on Game-Based Learning. In M. Barr (Ed.), Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning: Using Video Games for Employability in Higher Education (pp. 127–155). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-27786-4_5

Bowman, N. D., & Tamborini, R. (2012). Task demand and mood repair: The intervention potential of computer games: New Media & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444812450426

Caillois, R. (1958). Man, Play, and Games. University of Illinois Press.

Chen, J. (2007). Flow in games (and everything else). Communications of the ACM, 50(4), 31–34. https://doi.org/10.1145/1232743.1232769

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Reprint). HarperPerennial.

Ghuman, D., & Griffiths, M. (2012, January 1). A Cross-Genre Study of Online Gaming: Player Demographics, Motivation for Play, and Social Interactions Among Players [Article]. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning (IJCBPL). www.igi-global.com/article/content/64348

Klimmt, C., Hartmann, T., & Frey, A. (2007). Effectance and control as determinants of video game enjoyment. Cyberpsychology & Behavior: The Impact of the Internet, Multimedia and Virtual Reality on Behavior and Society, 10(6), 845–847. https://doi.org/10.1089/cpb.2007.9942

Reinecke, L. (2009). Games and Recovery. Journal of Media Psychology, 21(3), 126–142. https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-1105.21.3.126

Rieger, D., Wulf, T., Kneer, J., Frischlich, L., & Bente, G. (2014). The winner takes it all: The effect of in-game success and need satisfaction on mood repair and enjoyment. Computers in Human Behavior, 39, 281–286. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.07.037

Scharkow, M., Festl, R., Vogelgesang, J., & Quandt, T. (2015). Beyond the “core-gamer”: Genre preferences and gratifications in computer games. Computers in Human Behavior, 44, 293–298. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2014.11.020

Sweetser, P., & Wyeth, P. (2005). GameFlow: A model for evaluating player enjoyment in games. Computers in Entertainment, 3(3), 3–3. https://doi.org/10.1145/1077246.1077253

Yee, N. (2006). Motivations for play in online games. Cyberpsychology & Behavior: The Impact of the Internet, Multimedia and Virtual Reality on Behavior and Society, 9(6), 772–775. https://doi.org/10.1089/cpb.2006.9.772

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