Mind Games

James Parkinson
James Parkinson
Mind Games

For all the negative coverage and misrepresentation that video games receive, the reality is very different. For most of us, games are a hugely positive influence on our lives, particularly for our mental health and wellbeing. This episode, we dispel the myths around the psychology of games, and we hear from two people who use games as a coping strategy to manage anxiety and depression.

If this episode brought up any issues for you, help is available. Visit checkpointorg.com for global mental health services.

 TRANSCRIPT

JAMES PARKINSON: For all the negative coverage and misrepresentation that video games receive, the reality is very different. For most of us, games are a hugely positive influence on our lives, particularly in the area of mental health and wellbeing.

DANIELLE WOODRING: The biggest thing that video games do for me is the connection with other people. And so it's a way to have fun, and a chance for me as an extrovert, to spend time talking for hours, with people who I would never sit on the phone with for a couple hours. But we can game together, and also talk about our days, and what's going on in our lives.

ALEX PAGE: For me, I'm all about that single player experience, where it is a bit of escapism. And something I can really just sink my teeth into, without that feeling of failure, or the feeling of like being on a tightrope, like most of life is. It's actually just a place you can actually enjoy yourself. That's the pull for me.

JAMES PARKINSON: Just a heads up, we will be touching on topics like depression and anxiety in this episode, from the perspectives of two people with similar but contrasting experiences. We’ll look at the ways in which games have helped them through some struggles in their lives, and what the research and science say about how games influence our mental state.

JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.

RACHEL KOWERT: Games are playful spaces. They're playful, social spaces. Play, in and of itself, is associated with reduced stress, reduce depression, the releasing of endorphins, increased creativity. And then when you play together, all of these things are socially reinforced. So I think a lot of times we think of games as kind of, you know, I don't know, “this evil technology that's coming to take over the lives of our children”. But if we look at its base components, it's a fun, social interactive space.

RACHEL KOWERT: My name is Dr. Rachel Kowert. I am a Research Psychologist and the Research Director for Take This, which is the first mental health non-profit that has worked specifically with gaming communities and the gaming industry. I have been studying games and gamers for more than 10 years, with a specific focus on media effects; so how games impact us physically, socially and psychologically.

JAMES PARKINSON: In addition to her work in this field, Rachel is also a gamer herself. The science always comes first, but she has a deep understanding of what it means to play games and the kinds of social spaces that exist around them. When Rachel was studying to become a therapist, her experience speaking to parents made her shift the focus of her career.

RACHEL KOWERT: So I was seeing parent after parent after parent come in saying, My kids are playing a lot of World of Warcraft, and I'm really concerned. And at the time, I was playing so much World of Warcraft. So I started being like, “Oh no, like, is something...am I hindering myself?”, right? Like, am I doing something that's going to have long term repercussions? And at the time game studies was not a field of research. So that's when I decided to pivot my studies away from becoming a clinician, and towards doing research to generate that information to then give to parents, and also a little selfish, because I was really concerned about myself as well.

RACHEL KOWERT: I think it makes a huge difference having a familiarity with it. And I will be clear that I have been accused of like, “Oh yeah, of course you say games are good for mental health, because you play games and you love games”. And I one thousand percent got into this field thinking I would find negative effects for sure, no question. But I'm very much a, “go with the numbers, what does the science say? What does the research say?”. And, you know, these kinds of moral panic claims about games ruining our lives, or being grossly bad for mental health is just not supported by the research. And if it was, I would tell you, I promise. So, I mean, that is true. And I think it's important that I have the experience in what games are and what they are not. Because it's fear of the unknown that drives a lot of this kind of misperception, right?

JAMES PARKINSON: Obviously, games can never be a replacement for professional treatment. But just like going to the gym or hanging out with friends might help someone to reduce stress and manage anxiety, for a lot of people, games can do that too.

RACHEL KOWERT: Games are tools just like anything else, or technology, just like all the technologies that came before them. And at the end of the day, their impact is generally more good than bad. At the very least, it's neutral.

RACHEL KOWERT: You know, as humans we’ve been playing since the beginning of time, it's critical, not only in childhood but also in adulthood, to have something fun and frivolous, that we are engaged in. So as I mentioned before, play, in and of itself, is associated with reduced depression, reduced anxiety releasing of endorphins. Socialisation is another natural stress reliever that's key to our psychological wellbeing and associated with a range of physical benefits, like longevity and increased immune system, greater cognitive functioning, improved mood, reduced depression, and a reduced sense of loneliness. There is this theory called mood management theory, and that's kind of what I go to when I talk a lot about how games can help with things like depression, which is a mood disorder. There's a lot of research looking at entertainment media as a coping strategy for negative emotion. So if we’re bored, we watch an exciting television program, or if we’re stressed we watch a relaxing television program. And games kind of work the same way. For example, Animal Crossing, which I've been talking about all pandemic because Animal Crossing has been my mood management tool for the last year, right? It's cute, it's colourful, it's low pressure. And through that - it's creative - we can play it and improve our mood, actually feel an improved mood and stress reduction through these kinds of creative hobbies that these virtual worlds are providing us. So it's the games itself, like Animal Crossing and its mechanics. It's also the social aspect of these games, and then together, it creates a magic concoction that's really good for mood management and repair.

JAMES PARKINSON: The social part is hugely important. We’re more connected than ever these days, and playing online with friends has become so integral to the way we experience games. But it’s also one of the most misunderstood aspects of gaming culture.

RACHEL KOWERT: Older generations - the ones above me, not me, because I understand, because I'm hip with the kids, right? - think that these relationships are not real relationships. And what you don't understand is, for a lot of us playing games, we play games with people we know, for instance. A lot of people play games with their friends at school or with other family members. But even if you're playing with, quote, unquote, “strangers”, there's been a lot of research finding that people relate to their internet friends, just as they relate to their friends up the road. Between 40% and 70% of players report discussing offline issues with their online friends, including concerns they haven't discussed with other people. So people not only view their online relationships as meaningful, these online spaces are providing a method of communicating important personal topics with others. And I also like to mention that online relationships can be as strong or stronger than our traditional face-to-face relationships, because trust is formed - I like to say that it's formed backwards, because in games, you know, if you can trust someone, before you get to know them, “did you help me kill that dragon?”, or “did you not heal me, and let me die?”, Okay? So can I trust you or can I not? And then over time, I get to know you. So they're emotionally jumpstarted. So these friendships can come very close, very quickly. And if you ask people what they mean to you, they say, “oh, these friendships are as real - are more real than any other friendship I have”, which again, from the outside looking in, people tend to think those aren't real friendships, they don't provide a real social value, but they absolutely do.

JAMES PARKINSON: In making this episode, I wanted to hear from people about the positive impacts games have had on their mental health. So I put a call out and got a few responses, and one of them was Alex Page.

ALEX PAGE: As someone who has experienced, you know, a range of ups and downs, mental health wise, for most of my adult life, the end of 2020 just knocked me out, like, I was cooked, I was exhausted. And so a lot of the classic signs of depression come through, where no motivation, pushing the rock up the hill infinitely and just feeling, no purpose, stuck, whatever. And in January, I thought why not add to my misery and finally beat Dark Souls one [laughs].

JAMES PARKINSON: Alex is a 30 year old from Sydney, he’s a sociologist, and he’s been playing games most of his life. He’s also had depression since he was young.

ALEX PAGE: I think, first diagnosed when I was a young man, on and off since my early teens. And basically, the practical results of that, without reading out my diary to you, is that there are periods of my life where things are very, very difficult for me to move, basically. Not just physically, I mean mentally. It feels like I'm walking through sand. Existential questions, pointlessness, automatic thinking, which is extremely negative, relationships burn out, a sense of overwhelming hopelessness but no one to blame. There’s no reason for it, it just hits you out of nowhere.

JAMES PARKINSON: Alex goes to therapy and is fortunate to have a great support network of family and friends around him. But he says games have also been really helpful in managing his mental health, like his experience playing Dark Souls.

ALEX PAGE: Dark Souls is a now genre-defining kind of classic game. It's like an action RPG, right? There's a lot of RPG elements. In terms of like, you know, I don't want to push up my glasses here, but it is like, you're getting armour with different effects, you're getting like swords, you're getting shields, etc. But the main thing it really does is it's a death simulator. So it's really difficult. But it's not intentionally difficult in a way that's unfair it is. Every time you die, you know why you die. And it's your fault, essentially. You've got to figure out the puzzles to survive it. And so basically, you're burning through a series of levels, fighting harder and harder enemies and trying to get to the next checkpoint, which is a bonfire in this game. But if you die on the way there, you lose all of your progress and go back to the last checkpoint. So the aim is to get through - kill enough things, or run your ass off and survive to the next point, in order to use your experience points to actually level up and get stronger.

JAMES PARKINSON: So after the difficult year that was 2020, Alex chose this super challenging, frustrating game as his outlet.

ALEX PAGE: And I just got stuck in that loop of - I think I must have burned through it in about 60 hours. But it was suffering and choosing to experience suffering in a way that was controlled and hard and painful, but really engaging. Like, the sweats, the sitting forward, like actually giving me physiological responses. And even with the lack of understanding of the lore, there really was for me, a sense of like, I don't know, just being in my own head and the depression kicking on, and in Dark Souls, acting as the most - probably one of the most overt metaphors for overcoming depression I think I've ever experienced in a video game. Like, it literally is about like, do you push on through fear and risk and potential death in order to reach the next bonfire? Which is the most, for me, obvious parallel to depression, right? Where every day is really difficult. Things that don't have meaning all of a sudden now in Dark Souls have extreme meaning. Like, walking around this doorway in any other game would just be, “I'm going to go to the next room”, right? And in this one, it's “I'm going to walk into this tiny box with the Capra Demon for the sixth, seventh, twentieth, fortieth time. He's gonna smash me to bits, but I've just got to do it again, I've just got to know if I can do this”. And that feeling really pulls you through, right? So I'm suffering through the entirety of Dark Souls one, I finish it, I feel pretty accomplished with myself, you know, like, “Wow, this is a good feeling”. And I guess there's heaps of stuff on that, right? That idea that Dark Souls is that kind of finding meaning in an infinitely bleak world, where the existential questions are asked of you every time you die; “why do you continue? Is it for the souls? Is it to see how far you can go?”. It makes you ask, “Why am I doing this to myself?” the entire time, which I really loved about it. Then I found out my best mate - my best mate Stef, he has a PS4 and he's like, “I'm gonna start Dark Souls 3”, and I was like, “okay, let's dive into this. I'm really excited for you to die with me, basically”. And suffer, right? Because the whole thing is about finding meaning in suffering, for us anyway. And again, he doesn't know about the lore. I don't know about any of the story. All we see, Dark Souls 3, the whole thing is; world in collapse, the disrepair has gotten to this point where everything - the fire is fading out, and your job is to basically reignite, as long as you can go, right?

JAMES PARKINSON: Alex was ready for another challenge, and this time he wouldn’t be facing it alone. Connecting with friends in Dark Souls though is a little different to most games.

ALEX PAGE: The cooperative thing, the really interesting cooperative thing, which I love about this game is - that love and hate - it hasn't got the menu which you click, “co-op”. You're either online or offline. And the way your friends get in contact with you, right, is they'll put a sign on the floor. It's called a white soapstone. So they'll make a little mark on the floor in their game, and it pops up in yours. And you can basically summon them from that sign. And that's the way they connect these worlds together, it's very cool. Often doesn't work, whether it's for level differences, or you've already beaten the boss in an area and you can't summon your friends into that till you get to the next one. So it's not like this continuous play. It's a constant fight just to be connected. Which Dark Souls nerds will claim, “this as part of the lore and the story”. And people like me go, “can we just hang out with each other in this game?”, but it also adds that pressure right? When you finally get connected, you're like, “oh, Jesus”, which is a lot like life, right? “Ah, a person I can exist with and combat the world with”.

ALEX PAGE: And so, what it does for me anyway, the big revelation for me was having the friend put down the white soapstone, and he's your best mate. And it finally works, and I can summon him into my world to go and beat this boss - the Dancer - that I've been dying on for three days was revelatory, man. It was like, like when you win, it’s a genuine sense of joy, it's a genuine sense of achievement, right? Which, I know that the Dark Souls, people will be like, “Yeah, of course”. But coming from solo play, which is my entire gaming history, basically, except for a bit of COD with my wife for fun, that solo play, and having someone finally like, “no, this is suffering together”, I think that's a really important component of that experience for me. So that's what we did, we basically beat the game in like, I think two weeks, and we annoyed both of our partners and wives, because we'd stay up to 2am. We're talking and chatting the entire time about our lives, while basically getting our ass handed to us. It was not easy. It was really, really hard. But doing it in collaboration was a total reprieve. And when it ended, it was so apparent to me of that feeling of, like, relief, which I got from the first game. But because of the collaboration, it was the most - we were even talking about this, how overt the parallel is between both of our lives and us going through mental shit all the time. And realising how good cooperation, collaboration can be, in essentially a meaningless world. So all of those existential questions that the game is putting to you, we're doing it together. And we're suffering together.

ALEX PAGE: The online elements give it just enough hope in working with other people that it makes it, that difficulty and the repetition of the death, way more meaningful. And that is what I pulled out of it, as the positive aspect of it. It was the most obvious like, “this sucks and you can do it by yourself”. You can wade through the pain if you want, if that's what you're into, great. But if you want to do it together, in a way that's just - the boss's health gets amplified every time you add another person to the co-op. Like, it doesn't make it easier, it actually makes it sometimes harder. But overcoming together, I think, is the really big thing for me.

JAMES PARKINSON: You might be wondering, like I was, why someone would put themselves through so much frustration when they’re already dealing with a lot in their life. But for Alex, that was the whole idea.

ALEX PAGE: It is the question. But that's the point. It's, for me, it's all about, I could just play Miles Morales, the Spider Man game that came out with the PS5, right? And I just got - it just disengaged me. Like, it was a great game, it looked amazing, you know, they've done everything right. But the thing that these games do is they put such pressure on you to focus, to concentrate, that you actually get your whole body involved. Like, your whole body is tense, you are embodying the stress and the anxiety but also the wins of the thing. And in cooperation, that's amplified, right? So that positivity of “we did it”, is really, really felt. You're also having that play experience at the same time, where you’re not just watching some horrific World War II documentary or a horrific film which deals with a really nuanced emotional problem that destroys your week. You are making the meaning out of a tough situation, that doesn't try and tell you why it's tough. It doesn't actually force that lore onto you. You get to set the parameters of why you choose to do this. That is an amazing thing. And whether it was, you know, conscious or not, I think that allowing you to deal with the existential question of, “why do we suffer? Why do we go through pain? Why do we push through, despite things being initially terrifying?”. It is like a full on heart rate raising, “okay, I've just got to try. There's no point running away, there's no way to run, I've just got to have a go”. That is an amazing feeling for a video game to pull out of me. This is like weight. If I die, there's a weight to it. And that's the feeling I really get out of those games. I really enjoyed that aspect.

JAMES PARKINSON: We all have different tastes in games and that includes the reasons why we play what we play, and what we get out of them. For Alex, embodying his feelings in the tense experience of Dark Souls gives him the relief he’s looking for. For others, that might be too much to handle. Here’s Rachel.

RACHEL KOWERT: Yeah, and it depends on the person. So some people really like first person shooter games for stress relief, right? As I mentioned. For me, that just makes my life worse. If I play first person shooter games, I like simulation games, I like Animal Crossing. I like Stardew Valley. I like those sorts of slow paced games. So there's absolutely differences and what works for one person doesn't necessarily work for the other. And maybe some are better at fostering it. Like I mentioned, Animal Crossing, because it's so low pressure. And it’s also social, and it's easy to kind of come in and come out of it. So yeah, you will never get me off the Animal Crossing soapbox. I love that game so much.

JAMES PARKINSON: Yeah, many people prefer a more relaxed vibe when they’re feeling depressed or anxious, like Danielle, who also finds comfort in games like Animal Crossing.

DANIELLE WOODRING: So the thing with anxiety and depression is I feel like they do normally come packaged together. But they are completely different in the way that they show themselves. So whether I'm feeling anxious compared to if I'm feeling depressed, I'm looking for something different with video games. If I'm feeling really anxious, then usually I want to go for a game where I'm either with people - so maybe playing Starcraft or Fortnite with some of my friends. Or games where I feel like I can have control, because part of the anxiety is not having control with the world around you. And obviously video games give an opportunity for you to be in the driver's seat and have full control over almost all of your outcomes. And games, especially where I can, like Animal Crossing or Stardew Valley, something where I can kind of go through tasks and feel like I'm achieving things. Or where I can play games with my friends and not only talk those things out and work those things out, but work as a team and try and go for first place and feel really good that I'm achieving things. Now if I'm feeling depressed, I probably don't want to be interacting with other people as much. So that's where playing a good RPG, or something that I can just kind of do without any high pressure is something that I would play. Or a mobile game, where I can lay in bed and play, just as a way to kind of recharge my batteries and get some energy back and kind of work through everything.

JAMES PARKINSON: Danielle Woodring lives in the Atlanta, Georgia area with her husband and two kids. Video games have always been part of her life. It’s a hobby that she shares with her husband, and now with their kids as well. And during life’s most challenging moments, Danielle turns to games to help her through it. That’s next on Gameplay.

[AD BREAK]

JAMES PARKINSON: Danielle Woodring has long dealt with anxiety. While she didn’t always recognise it or understand it for what it was, it came to the fore during pregnancy.

DANIELLE WOODRING: So when I was pregnant with my second kid, I was officially diagnosed with anxiety and depression issues, and especially postpartum depression. I have been in therapy and on medication, which has been incredibly helpful. And I've grown a lot with all of that. The post-baby time really brought it to the surface. But after going through therapy, I see that, especially anxiety, is something that I have struggled with my whole life pretty much. And the thing with anxiety is, it can easily hide itself as something else. So I always called it me being Type A or a high achiever. And my anxiety did help me excel at things I was doing. It made me strive for a lot, it helped me get management positions at a young age, or be president of the clubs in college or get into certain programs that I wanted. But now through medication and therapy, I've learned to have that drive still, without all of the fear and sadness that can come with it, when you're not achieving everything all the time.

JAMES PARKINSON: And Danielle says that games help her in numerous ways too. From managing her mood, to connecting with friends, and being an outlet for her competitive nature. They also provided a huge comfort when experiencing grief.

DANIELLE WOODRING: When my son was a year old, and I was halfway through my pregnancy with my daughter, my brother-in-law passed away. And we had been really privileged and had never experienced loss. I hadn't even lost a grandparent, I'd never been to a funeral. There was nothing I had really experienced like that. And at the time, we didn't even have internet in our apartment. And we were very, very busy with our little baby. And so we hadn't been gaming in a while. But our downstairs neighbour that we were really good friends with,  Anna, realised that we needed a distraction. And she knew that we used to be really big into PC gaming. And since we didn't have internet, we couldn't do that. So she brought up one of her old consoles, and brought up Guitar Hero and Portal, and some other games that brought back a sense of nostalgia. Something that we were already kind of familiar with, and it would be something that we could easily sit on the couch and work through together, and just kind of keep our minds off of things. Because when something like that happens, it is nice to have a distraction. You do want to process everything and you don't want - I know we throw around like escapism a lot with video games, and I definitely think it has its place but you don't want to completely pull yourself away from reality and never process anything. But at the same time, you can't just cry all day long. So it was really kind of her and really interesting, and someone else had sold us a Wii for really cheap at the same time. So we could go back and play Lego Harry Potter and games we had played when we were younger. And you know, some people bring you food, when you're going through something tragic like that, or offer babysitting or things like that. And the fact that she knew us and knew that gaming could give us a sense of peace, a sense of normalcy, and it was a shared interest with my husband and I. So the fact that we could sit there, and video games, unlike movies can keep you engaged. So our minds weren't wandering off, thinking about my brother-in-law's passing. But instead, we could just kind of be working through these tasks together, like in Portal, and going through these games together. Where it brought back a sense of comfort, because it's something we're familiar with, and it is a good distraction. And that's, that's that at the end of the day. Some people go to comfort food, and we went to comfort gaming.

JAMES PARKINSON: While the COVID-19 pandemic saw a rise in moral panic opinion pieces about the supposed dangers of video games for our mental health, so many of us were able to cope because we had games and online communities to turn to during periods of lockdowns and isolation.

DANIELLE WOODRING: So in the beginning of the pandemic, it was probably like by April 2020 when the world was spinning out of control. And obviously, someone with anxiety, even for people without anxiety, a pandemic is hard. But I needed another way to regain some control. Because at that point, my kids were supposed to be in school. So I was homeschooling. And the only thing that was even semi-consistent to a pre-pandemic world was I was still working out every day, but it was just through Zoom. So what I did is, I scoured eBay for our old Wii to find a physical copy of Animal Crossing: City Folk. And I played that from pretty much April until almost Christmas of 2020. And that goes back to not just having control, but the nostalgia was great. It was a game I already knew. It was something that wasn't stressful, the rest of the world was stressing me out. And it was something that was familiar, it's repetitive. For me as a checklist person, I printed off a checklist of all the items that I needed to get. And every day, I would check them off, I was trying to collect all of them. And it was something that gave me a sense of normalcy. In a world that didn't feel normal. And my kids could be around me. If I'm reading a book, I usually want a quiet room to myself. But that wasn't going to happen in a world where all of a sudden, we were all in the house 24/7. So to be able to have something like a video game where I could sit in the living room and play and the kids can be there with me and watching me or just playing on their own. And we could all kind of interact, without being up in each other's business, was really nice.

DANIELLE WOODRING: This has been by far the most difficult thing I've ever gone through in terms, especially the longevity of it. Usually when a crisis occurs, or something terrible, like, we had discussed when my brother-in-law passed away. At that point, the grieving, what we were going through, how it completely put our lives on hold for multiple weeks, we still knew at the end of the day, “okay, we have lots of people telling us that they've gone through similar things, and that it will get better, and we'll get through this”. But at the beginning of the pandemic, we didn't know how long it was going to last. And if this was going to be our lives for years, or how long we had to endure. So it was extremely difficult. And now we have found a new balance, now that we've been in this for so long. Probably about six months ago, we really hit a good stride. That's when I reconnected with a lot of my old high school friends, a lot of my old gaming friends. We built a really nice PC for me with all of the new graphics cards and CPUs that came out. So I was able to play everything, very immersive, get back into games like Skyrim and Fortnite, and things that I could play and really enjoy the details and immerse myself in those worlds, and do it with friends, really has helped us through the rest of this, up until now, now that we're vaccinated, and now we're just waiting for the vaccine to be available for our kids, but it's really been gaming every night, being on Discord every day with our gamer friends that has gotten us through this.

JAMES PARKINSON: For parents who don’t play games or didn’t grow up with them, it can often be a confusing world to navigate with kids. But for Danielle and her family, gaming is very much a family activity, and provides a lot of opportunities for education and socialising.

DANIELLE WOODRING: So our kids are four and six right now. And anytime that we can do something with them, that they also enjoy doing, is a win. It's hard to find common ground sometimes. I like building with Legos, but I hate playing pretend with action figures. So there's only so many hours that I want to be on the floor playing with them. And there's only so many times that they want to play one of my favourite board games or something - and we do play board games. But with video games, it really feels like an opportunity to play things with my husband and with my young kids. I'm happy to hop on Roblox with them. And they will get on Creative in Fortnite with me, or even Starcraft, and the fact that it's a way to have them interact with me for two hours and talk through Discord, or they'll sit on the laptop in the same room. But the fact that we can interact and talk and work together, it's such a nice, casual way without grilling them about their day. If I'm playing Roblox with my six year old for an hour, he's going to talk about things like school, things that came up in his day, without me sitting and grilling him, “How was your day, who did you hang out with? What did you do?”. And I really enjoy that aspect of it. I think games are fun, and I'm glad that they think games are fun. And I think it's an enjoyable thing to do as a family. We also like doing things like - we're playing through Dragon Quest 11 right now, which is an older RPG. And it's a one-player, but we all enjoy watching, we enjoy doing the storyline together, we enjoy things where we can make decisions as a family. “Okay, should we go fight this person? Or do you think we should try this other quest?”. It's something where one of the adults can take over when something harder is going on. But then the kids can take over the controls and grind out some battles with easy monsters. And it's just something where we can interact and talk. Unlike watching a movie or a TV show together, where you're pretty much just sitting there quietly. We're still on a screen, but we're constantly interacting with each other.

JAMES PARKINSON: While some parents may be cautious about introducing games to their kids, Danielle and her husband make a point of staying informed, and try to pass on the same benefits of games they experience to their own children.

DANIELLE WOODRING: So even though they're four and six, we definitely, this is something that we think about, and talk about. We're very research based in our decision making. I love having this in common with them and I hope it continues. We continue to like to game, and just like my parents would hang out with me and my friends, and we'd listened to really cool record albums, and that was something we had in common, I'm hoping as they continue to get older, that we can still play games with them and hang with them. And they can show us new games. And we're trying to be engaged with what they're interested in. And if this is interesting to them, then we're happy to have them play with us. And my kids are using video games, during the pandemic, in order to engage with other kids. They're playing video games with my friends' kids or with my little cousins. And it's a way for them to get to talk to people, and it's also a way for me to stay engaged in their friend group, because I'm playing Fortnite with my friends kids, and those kids’ friends. So I kind of know what's going on in their Elementary school, because I'm playing with my friend and these other Elementary school kids. And so if that's something that we can continue to do, and stay engaged in our kids’ lives and get to know their friends through things like playing online video games with them, that's great in my book.

JAMES PARKINSON: When you’re struggling with mental health issues it can be challenging to explain to some people how games are helping you, not hindering you. And you kind of expect that with say, older family members who maybe don’t understand games. But that’s a battle you don’t want to have with your therapist. Alex says, for him that was initially a difficult conversation.

ALEX PAGE: Over the years, it’s just been therapy in different kinds of ways with different types of, you know, clinical psychologists, councillors, etc. My most recent interactions with a psychologist during COVID, I was trying to explain to her - and she's like, credentialed to the extreme, top of her field, a gun psych, right? Has been really helpful. But the gap in knowledge, the only gap of knowledge that we have, that I have to try and really explain is the gaming element. Because immediately, I think we jumped to, “he's playing because he's addicted, because he's not in a good way right now”, or “this is potentially dangerous, because it's sucking all of his time away”, or “why would you put yourself through something that's..”, you know. You try to explain the masochism of Dark Souls and why it's fun, and often I have to do this work where I say, “okay, there might be elements where, okay, I spent five hours straight playing this thing on a night before I have to go back to work the next day, not a smart choice”. At the same time, I didn't have to communicate with anyone, except for in this particular world, I could just focus on a task that I don't have to fail every time, you know, to feel that failure is just another, I can learn to grapple with failure as something that happens. And this is a space to just, you know, violently maul everything with the biggest sword I can find. And just get that out. And then I have to explain, sometimes that is a really, really good feeling, right? It's a really good feeling to just, it's emotional regulation, essentially. It doesn’t actually substitute your actual real life, but it does give you a chance to experience something outside of yourself, while also working with your mental state at the time. So it's really, really weird. It's like this, like, “I know I'm going through some shit, I don't feel very good, but fuck, it felt really good to smash that up for a minute. And that is the kind of thing I try and talk about.

DANIELLE WOODRING: I will talk to my therapist, yes, about gaming, and I'm very open with people about using gaming as a coping strategy. I think one of the issues is when people talk about screen time and being in your room on the computer, I think that they're thinking of it as an “instead of”, instead of an “also”, like, when people are gaming, this is you continuing to interact. People assume that when you're talking about gaming, that it's just the only thing you do. But it's just the bonus way to interact with people. It's not gaming instead of interacting with them, you're gaming in order to interact with them.

JAMES PARKINSON: Sometimes it can feel like the moral panic around games will never go away, but I think it is starting to change, if very slowly. Sharing stories like Alex and Danielle’s can hopefully help to dispel some of those stereotypes and generalisations, but most importantly, it’s listening to the science.

RACHEL KOWERT: So there's this theory called Self Determination Theory, which is a theory of human motivation. It says we're driven by the need to feel autonomous, to make our own decisions, to feel connected, to feel related to other people, and to have a sense of achievement, that we're accomplishing something. And games tick all three of those boxes. So that's why games are so great at making us feel this sense of stress release, or this sense of accomplishment, because we can go into a game when we can toil our farm, and we feel like we've achieved something right? We can connect with - our friends can join us on our farm and now we have that sense of relatedness. And we also have a sense of autonomy. We can go where we want, or we can choose to play what game that we want. And over the last year, these three basic needs that we have, as humans; being autonomous, feeling a sense of achievement and feeling connected, have been vastly lowered from the COVID-19 pandemic. So that's another reason I think that games have become so popular over the last year. Generally, that's a way of understanding how they can contribute positively to our psychological well-being. And why I also keep framing games as tools because games are tools that allow us to meet these needs. They can supplement our ability to have these needs met in our day-to-day lives.

JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks so much to Dr Rachel Kowert. If you’d like to learn more about Rachel’s work and the research around mental health and games, you’ll find links on this episode’s page on our website, gameplay.co. You can also tap through the direct link on the episode description in your podcast app. And if this episode brought up any issues for you, we also have links to support services. There is always help available.

JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks also to Alex Page and Danielle Woodring for sharing their stories. Alex and Danielle are both listeners to the show, and got in touch on Twitter and Discord, after I posted a call-out for stories. And if you have a story you’d think would be a great fit for Gameplay, whether it’s your own personal story or something else entirely from the world of games, please get in touch. You can reach me directly via email: james@gameplay.co.

CREDITS

JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.

JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music from Blue Dot Sessions and Breakmaster Cylinder.

JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at ‘gameplaypodcast’. We also have a Discord, so come and hang out and talk games with us. And please take a moment to leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It’s a great way to encourage others to check out the show, and I do read every single review, so I’d love to hear from you. For more from Gameplay, including episode transcripts, further reading and all the links, head on over to our website, gameplay.co. Thanks for listening.


References:

Take This - mental health advocacy for the games industry & community

Dr. Rachel Kowert on Twitter

Psychgeist on Youtube

Video Games and Well-being: Press Start by Rachel Kowert

The Video Game Debate by Rachel Kowert

The Video Game Debate 2 by Rachel Kowert



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