How Video Games Can Be a Healthy COVID Escape

| February 16, 2021

This article was originally published on the International Arts + Mind Lab blog as part of the COVID-19 NeuroArts Field Guide

In the middle of lockdown, I was on an island fishing with my girlfriend. After selling our catch at the local store, we took an impromptu date to the museum and aquarium, admiring their collections. And, seeing as we were the only ones there (save for one sleepy museum attendant), we snapped an endless stream of photos to commemorate our pandemic date night experience.

I should note that throughout our adventures, we were still maintaining social distance. We hadn’t even left our home, hunkered down on our living room couch, while our virtual avatars ran about freely in the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

Given the physical distancing requirements posed during quarantine, it comes as no surprise that games like Animal Crossing have exploded in popularity. Even before the pandemic, video games were a staple of entertainment for many households; more than 214 million Americans say they play for one hour or more each week and 75% of households have at least one person who plays. The stereotype that gaming is the sole purview of adolescent boys no longer holds: the average age of gamers is actually 35 – 44 and 41% of gamers are women.

Video games are a unique art form that allows for a whole new level of immersion and interaction in storytelling. The design of a game – including its graphics, animation, character development, soundscape – incorporates many of the creative elements of other art forms. And like other arts, video games can open up another outlet for human expression and escape.

As surging COVID-19 cases limit holiday travel and winter in the northern hemisphere forces people indoors, video games offer a safe way to explore different worlds and meet up with friends – while providing many social, emotional, cognitive, and physical benefits to boot.

Playing Video Games Can Provide Real-Life Power-Ups

Each weekend, my friends and I get together to outwit each other aboard a spaceship in the game Among Us, which has also caught on like wildfire during the pandemic. (It has become so popular that Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently streamed herself playing Among Us to get out the vote for the 2020 election.)

Among Us is a game of social deduction, like Mafia or Secret Hitler, where innocent crew members need to identify imposters while completing tasks to maintain the ship. The game also provides a chance to catch up with one another and meet friends of friends. In lieu of face-to-face outings, Among Us is probably where I get most of my social interaction each week.

Games that include these social components have been found to have positive benefits on psychological wellbeing by providing a virtual space to “hang out” with real-life friends or make online ones, leading to greater closeness and intimacy. These social games may also foster more prosocial behavior. Research has found that cooperative games, like Overcooked or Portal 2, could promote more empathy and cooperative behavior outside the game for both children and adults.

Video games can also promote emotional regulation, which is handy during These Unprecedented Times. One study found that regular gamers better managed their emotions and were less emotionally reactive than irregular gamers. Another study found that frequent gaming was positively associated with relaxation and coping. This may be because people tend to use video games to recover from stressful situations and negative emotions: simply put, games are fun and contribute to positive emotions and emotional stability. But in addition, games can teach adaptive strategies through storytelling or problem-solving that the player can apply to the real world. And, more directly to our pandemic predicament, a recent pre-print study that has not yet undergone peer review from Oxford reported that playing more video games is, on average, improved mental wellbeing.

Gaming has cognitive benefits as well. Video games are engaging and interactive by design, often incentivizing players to work towards meaningful goals, learn from failure, and accomplish challenging tasks. Numerous studies have found that “action” video games (like Halo or Call of Duty) may enhance the ability to learn new skills by improving focus and task prioritization. These games are also linked to lasting improvements in spatial skills, even after only a relatively short amount of playtime. Gaming, in general, also improves mental processing speed, reaction times, and memory, suggesting that gameplay changes the brain. One study found that playing the classic game, Super Mario, a mere 30 minutes a day was correlated to increased grey matter in brain areas crucial for spatial navigation, strategy planning, working memory, and movement.

Finally, games help us get moving. Video games that incorporate movement (active games or “exergames”) like Wii Fit or Just Dance can help keep us physically fit in the safety of our own homes. One meta-analysis of 100 studies found that active video games improved physical activity; playing these games regularly can significantly improve physical health outcomes like balance, flexibility, muscle strength, and heart rate. In addition, compared with traditional exercise, exergames are significantly more enjoyable which may help people stick with it over the long-run. And because physical health is interrelated to mental health, exergames can alleviate psychological conditions, such as depression.

As with other activities, moderation is key. If played obsessively, games tend to have a detrimental effect. Indeed, “moderate gamers” have better mental health and psychosocial functioning compared to non-gamers or those who game in excess to the detriment of other areas in one’s life, such as relationships, school, work, and sleep.

Video games are obviously not the end-all solution to getting through the challenges of the pandemic. But, along with other creative activities (like dancingbaking and gardening), a bit of gaming can provide you the 1-Up you need.

How to Get Your Game On

The variety and number of games on the market today can be overwhelming, but the good news is that there is something out there for everyone.  Here are some games that can help you get started:

Creativity Games

  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons lets you make a digital island your own and visit those of your friends’.
  • Minecraft is a genre-defining game that allows you to survive and build your world, one block at a time.
  • The Sims 4 is a life simulator and home builder that allows you to live your best (or worst) life – without the real-world consequences.

Drawing Games

  • Jackbox Games offer a fun-pack of competitive and cooperative party games with friends for even the casual gamer. Play Drawful to draw ridiculous prompts, trivia games, or Pictionary all from your smartphone or tablet.
  • Other Pictionary-like games are free and easy to join online like Drawize and Skribbl.

Music Games

  • Audiosurf lets you race to your own music while Beat Saber has you slice through blocks to the beat of the song.

Writing Games

  • Kind Words allows you to write (and receive) letters of encouragement and kindness to people around the world (and provides a relaxing soundtrack to listen to while you do so).

Social Deduction Games

  • Among Us offers a multiplayer game for hours of teamwork, betrayal, and fun. Available for free on your smartphone or for $4.99 on your laptop.
  • Codenames Online allows you and your friends a virtual version of the board game classic.  Strategize how to best communicate your secret words to your teammates while keeping your opponents in the dark.

Exercise and Movement Games

  • Just Dance, Wii Fit, or Ring Fit combine interactive elements like music, virtual coaches, and high scores to make working out more fun.
  • Games like Pokémon Go or Zombies, Run add an augmented reality gaming component to encourage physical activity in the outside world while catching critters or escaping from zombies, respectively.

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