I’ve mentioned this briefly on here before, but one of the least talked about and from my perspective one of the most important aspects of gaming is the psychological and emotional benefits that it offers. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that gaming in general, but a few games in particular have gotten me through many of the most difficult times in my life and in some cases, has deeply affected the way I view the world. In all honesty, this truly transformative and healing effect is what made me want to get into the industry in the first place – so that I could be part of the process of making games that people can get lost in. It’s easy to focus on the negativity both surrounding the industry and coming from within it and there are no shortage of politicians eager to jump on the ‘video games are violent and bad for children’ argument, but often people seem to gloss over the benefits that games can provide to your life if consumed in moderation (just like everything else).
Like everyone else, I’ve had some difficult times in my life. There have been periods of extreme stress, especially during my undergrad and postgrad years (because there are few things quite as masochistic as a law degree) and in the prolonged and stressful period of job searching afterwards, things got tough. I’m sure everyone goes through times where stress levels seem to exceed themselves day by day and when problems sometime seem insurmountable. It’s just part of the human condition. Sure, some people seem breeze through life without a single hitch or any crushing disappointment, but I’m pretty sure they’re robots or at the very least not being completely open about some of the obstacles they’ve faced. During times like these it’s important to have an outlet. Writing or drawing or making music or any other of the thousands upon thousands of creative pursuits work very well as forms of cathartic self expression, but sometimes you just want to sit down and consume something. Sometimes you just need to switch off and get lost in another world. And that’s where games come in.
Believe it or not, I wasn’t always the relatively confident Cheeese I am now. During my awkward teenage years, when I was going through some difficult life events and faced quite a few significant obstacles I turned to games like Knights of the Old Republic 1 & 2 and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines and I didn’t feel so lonely or awkward anymore. It might seem a little depressing to you that interacting with people that only exist virtually should cheer someone up, but for people who aren’t blessed with great friends that they’ve known through their whole life, especially when someone who has uprooted their life and moved countries as many times as me and is searching for stability, just experiencing a story where you can be the hero or whoever you want to be for a few hours can be incredibly soothing. The game world becomes a safe and reliable place where you can experience danger and adventure without any of the downsides.
It has been said time and time again by people who suffer mental health problems like depression that gaming can be incredibly beneficial there as well. Just check out this blog called How Games Saved My Life for reams of moving testimonials of people who can attest to these benefits first hand. I read a story once in what I believe was an interview with someone who worked at BioWare (which I can’t seem to find now) about a fan of the Mass Effect series getting in touch with the developer to say that her daughter had killed herself and what had got her through the terrible period after and helped her heal was immersing herself in the world of Mass Effect. For some, the benefits go beyond merely life-enhancing and become actually life-saving. I think the press could do with reporting a few more of these stories as well.
That’s not even going into the educational benefits that games like Minecraft have for children – a game that’s increasingly used in classrooms to teach kids how to work together, problem solve, socialise with their peers and more, not to mention teach them ‘academic’ subjects like maths, music and reading. There’s a website that you can check out here created by teachers for teachers that provide teaching tools for an educational Minecraft experience. Beyond all of this though, teachers have reported that shy or ‘nerdy’ students who normally have trouble interacting with their peers are suddenly flourishing, because they have skills and knowledge that are in high demand and everyone wants to talk to them about it. Having played games with friends and my partner, who you know as Grumbl3dook or Sam, I know first hand what a tremendous bonding experience collaborating in a game is. Just because it’s a ‘game’, it doesn’t make the results and benefits from playing any less real.
Of course there are many forms of non-interactive art or media that you can consume from the comfort of your own home. I’ve always loved reading and it is definitely a great stress relieving activity. Games, however, are pretty unique in what they do. It’s not just that they’re interactive. Good games can draw you in and completely you immerse you in fantastical world and put you in the shoes of incredible characters. That’s true for something as complex and massive in scope as the ME series where the world, characters and story have captivated thousands of people around the world, but it can also work with something as simple as point and click adventure like The Secret of Monkey Island. I learned not to drink liquid while playing this game due to the danger of expelling it from my nose with no notice. Or even something more mindless like an arcade shooter or platformer like any of the Mario games or Resogun where you can totally switch off and you find yourself always trying to get a higher score. There are few things as special in gaming as that moment when you’re totally in the zone, where your view expands and your hands seem to be moving faster than you can even consciously react. You let your instincts take over and you kick ass.
It’s my belief that people shouldn’t write games off just because they’re usually played for fun. The social, psychological, emotional and educational benefits, among others, are massive and should be embraced by the public, media and governments alike. More awareness needs to be raised about how gaming can be good for society – both children and adults (in moderation and of course with parents holding the responsibility for checking age ratings on games). Gaming can and has literally saved lives. At the very least it can get you through those really difficult times as a constant that you can rely on. And I think that’s pretty damn special.