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Video Games and Our Mental Health

How opinions have differed over time on the way games affect our mental wellbeing and where we are now.

Video games have become an enjoyable pastime and passion for many decades now. At the same time, the subject of mental health has become more and more prevalent in our society. Discussion on mental health is now actively encouraged and assistance and professionals in the field are now more readily available than ever to help. With these two developments, it should come as no surprise then that games and mental health have intersected over recent years. From themes of mental health playing a key role within many game stories, research being conducted by institutions about the benefits and drawbacks of games on one's mental wellbeing and game companies vocally supporting mental health organisations and connection with charities. This discussion I believe should be encouraged as games can be a great avenue for people to get support from helpful communities and to explore and understand whatever they may be going through.

Stories are one of the most integral parts to the experience of modern gaming with the demand for single player narrative experiences being major. It should then come as no surprise that with the conversation increasing around mental health, that game stories are finding new ways to explore various mental health issues. An example that sticks in my mind was 2017’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice by British games studio Ninja Theory. The game revolves around a Pict warrior from Orkney named Senua, who is journeying to the Norse underworld to find the soul of her dead lover. While experiences of grief may be apparent from that brief description, the games main focus is on psychosis and the developers were in contact with experts and professionals in the field to ensure that the experience of playing as a character that suffers from psychosis feels as authentic as possible, even in a more fantastical setting. The portrayal of the affliction was important to get right with game director Tameem Antoniades quoted as saying:

“”It is easy to see the pain and suffering caused by physical diseases or physical trauma, it is not so easy to see the mental suffering or trauma or severe mental illness. But what if we could find a way to see it? Games are capable of drawing you in for hours on end, playing the role of a character who's different from you, experiencing their perspective, and actively involving you in a world that functions with a different set of rules. [...] There are many things that happen in the world of Hellblade that make perfect sense within the context of Senua's mind. [...] To complete Senua's quest, you have to internalise and accept the logic and meaning behind these things to progress"

The effort to portray psychosis was accomplished in collaboration with Welcome Trust and professors from University of Cambridge and University of Durham respectively. With games being able to garner support from academic professionals in the fields surrounding mental health and how we view the subject matter, the stigma and view of it being a taboo topic will gradually be removed. Speaking from first hand experience, the journey of Senua is certainly a powerful one and you feel the loss she has experienced and how she has always been treated differently because of her condition but gradually learns to accept that this is a part of who she is and not cursed as others claimed. It is my hope that other people can play this and feel the same in understanding this and to maybe seek assistance with any of their own thoughts and feelings they may relate with Senua.

How do professional organisations view the connection between mental health and gaming?

With Hellblade and other notable games such as Spec Ops: The Line, Psychonauts and Celeste, it is now an important time to see what professional organisations have found out about a link between mental health and gaming as an activity. From looking at several articles and pieces of research the common consensus appears to be that gaming can have a stimulating effect on one’s mental health but like many other such hobbies, it is better overall in moderation. Barnardo’s believes that gaming can assist with brain stimulation, stress relief and overcoming challenges can prove to be a helpful coping mechanism. YoungMinds did point to the benefits of gaming whilst also providing support for what to do when you do it too much like setting time limits on how long you spend gaming as well as writing down how you are feeling. The University of Oxford conducted a study of 40,000 different individuals that played games and found that while there are some concerns, you can rest easy if you think games have a drastic negative effect on mental health. Professor Andrew Przybylski commented saying:

‘We found it really does not matter how much gamers played [in terms of their sense of well-being]. It wasn’t the quantity of gaming, but the quality that counted…if they felt they had to play, they felt worse. If they played because they loved it, then the data did not suggest it affected their mental health. It seemed to give them a strong positive feeling.’

Again speaking from experience, I do try and moderate myself in how much time I spend with a game, coming off when I feel like I am no longer having a fun time. I know that various multiplayer games of today’s climate demand a lot of time in order to progress and gain rewards, sometimes offering the opportunity to progress faster if you are willing to pay real-world money. For those that prefer these multiplayer online games, it may feel like they must play and grind out these objectives to unlock what they desire. If they are having fun, then this should not really be such an issue, however if they find themselves in a monotonous cycle of feeling obligated to play then that may be a time to reassess where they choose to commit their time.

I believe that games and one’s mental health are intrinsically linked and gaming can provide a mental health benefit in moderation. It can help you understand both your own feelings as well as to get a grasp of what others go through. I do think my emotional intelligence has increased from playing games and I have found that the games that have mental health at the core of their themes, have left a lasting impression on me. As long as you know your limits and check for any themes that could be a potential mental trigger for yourself, then games can be a fun escape from everyday stresses and your mental wellbeing will be thankful.


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