Mental Health Awareness Month

Games as Tools for Mental Health

Raffael Boccamazzo, PsyD and Rachel Kowert, PhD of Take This on How Games Can Help Us During Social Distancing

Times are tough right now. Anxiety and stress are high, partially due to the sense of unknown that continues to loom across the globe. This is not only because of the realities of COVID-19 itself, but also the continuing need for social distancing accompanying it. 

Being social with others is a key component of our psychological well-being. It is associated with a variety of health benefits: greater longevity, greater sense of purpose, reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, and a reduced sense of loneliness. That last point is key, as loneliness is something many of us are feeling right now due to the increased social isolation brought on by the pandemic. Loneliness and social isolation are related, but are a bit different. One way to think about the difference between them is that social isolation is simply about numbers — how many people you have in your social networks. Loneliness is more about the quality of those relationships and if they fill your personal needs, regardless of how many people are in your network.

TTRPGs offer us the opportunities to use our imaginations together and tell exciting, collaborative stories that can bring people together for hours, months, or even years!

Games have always been a great way to socially connect with others, decrease one’s sense of loneliness, and increase one’s social connectedness. Games are particularly effective tools for mood management, because they can help us bring negative emotions and mood back into balance. While all entertainment media hold the ability to repair and manage our moods, games are particularly engaging because a well-designed game helps us meet several of our basic psychological needs: a sense of autonomy (you are free to make your own choices), a sense of competence (that you can achieve things, be successful), and a sense of relatedness (connecting with the other people via online play). These three components — autonomy, competence, and control — are universal and thought to be essential for the psychological health and well-being of an individual.

Now that we are physically distant from many of our friends and loved ones, the ease of access to the shared, fun spaces that games create can benefit us enormously. There have been no shortage of recent stories about games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and how people have used games for creating social connectedness during the pandemic, but there are other choices, too (though we’ve been playing a lot of Animal Crossing). 

With video games, there’s no shortage of multiplayer games that offer online social experiences. This ranges from MMOs and MOBAs like Guild Wars 2 or League or Legends and shooters like Overwatch, Destiny, and Fortnite, to more laid-back games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons (we had to mention it again!), Stardew Valley, and classics like Minecraft. Every one of these games offers some form of online multiplayer experience, though the pace and tone of the experiences will differ. One of the authors of this article (Dr. B) has a regular, weekly game of Earth Defense Force 5 with his old neighborhood friends. Sure, they wreak a lot of carnage on the invading aliens, but it’s also a time to catch up and check in on each other’s overall well-being. 

On the off chance you’ve never played a tabletop roleplaying game (TTRPG) like Dungeons & Dragons, now is a great time. Many people have already switched their regular in-person games to online games via online TTRPG platforms like Roll20, Fantasy Grounds, or other video chat programs like Zoom and Discord. Even better, many makers of TTRPGs are offering free materials right now, or they’re offering sales on their products. TTRPGs offer us the opportunities to use our imaginations together and tell exciting, collaborative stories that can bring people together for hours, months, or even years!

Programs like Tabletop Simulator and offer the option of playing your favorite tabletop and card games in an online format with friends and family. If you search the internet, there are plenty of opinions on great games to play. It’s something that several friends of both of the authors have been mentioning more and more. If you miss the opportunity to sit around a table and play classic or modern board games with friends, this might be the way to do it. 

People like games for a reason. It’s not only because they’re fun. It turns out that they have a range of mental health benefits as well. Lucky for us, there have never been more options for online play with friends and loved ones. Get out there. Try some new games. Revisit some old favorites. Whatever you do, have fun, be safe … and we’re going to go play more Animal Crossing

Take This provides mental health resources, guidelines, training, and support tailored to the unique needs of game developers and the game community while embracing the diverse cultures of the community. Take This’s mission is to decrease the stigma and increase support for mental health among game developers and enthusiasts.

Raffael Boccamazzo, PsyD
Raffael Boccamazzo, PsyD

Clinical Director at Take This

Rachel Kowert, PhD
Rachel Kowert, PhD

Research Director at Take This