Modern Life

Play on: Tapping into gaming’s mental health benefits

Online gaming unlocks new opportunities for health and well-being when gathering in person isn’t an option.

By Melanie Ehrenkranz — June 16, 2020

I haven’t seen one of my closest friends in nearly three months. He lives a short walk from me, but because of our current socially distant reality, the closest I’ve come to seeing his face is looking at the avatar he designed for the game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. When my phone pinged with a GIF he sent me showing off his avatar’s new outfit — a suit and a monocle — for a second, it made me feel a little closer to him in a way I hadn’t in quite some time. 

“I can’t imagine a better game to get people through a time of isolation,” says Ken Wong, Animal Crossing fan and lead designer of the architectural puzzle game Monument Valley. “It allows players to visit each other’s homes in virtual space, and to give gifts and send messages to each other. All the activities in the game — from fishing to gardening to decorating your home — are designed to be relaxing and therapeutic.”

Animal Crossing: New Horizons launched in March and immediately became a best-seller, with 13.41 million copies sold in its first six weeks — one of a number of record-breaking milestones in game play, viewing, and engagement during the pandemic. Verizon reported a 75% increase in gaming data usage in a single week in March, and viewers watched an unprecedented 3 billion hours of gaming on the streaming platform Twitch in the first quarter of 2020.

“We’ve got nutrition that feeds our body, and physical activity that builds our muscles. Gaming has the health benefits that help feed our mind.”

—Judy Johnson, director of gaming and esports at HP

“Games had already been emerging as a space for health, self-expression, and social connection for many years,” Wong says. “I think the pandemic has accelerated certain trends that were already happening.” 

A welcome connection

While Animal Crossing has been characterized as “the game for the coronavirus moment,” it’s just one very cute example of how our collective relationship to gaming — and the type of person we view as a gamer — has radically shifted. Far from the stereotype of a sedentary, isolating pastime, this uniquely challenging moment is shining a spotlight on gaming’s ability to build social bonds and boost mental health in trying times.

It also happens to be one of the safest ways for people to come together during a pandemic. The World Health Organization, which just last year recognized “gaming disorder” as an illness, is now encouraging gaming as a healthy physical distancing activity with its #PlayApartTogether campaign

Along with benefits such as improvements in perception, attention, and cognitive abilities, new research has shown that gaming can help lower stress and improve mental well-being because the challenges gamers tackle help create a sense of control and camaraderie with others. In a recent OMEN by HP survey, respondents who started gaming during the COVID-19 crisis reported feeling nearly twice as connected, happy, and optimistic as non-gamers.

“We’ve got nutrition that feeds our body, and physical activity that builds our muscles,” says Judy Johnson, director of gaming and esports at HP. “Gaming has the health benefits that help feed our mind.”

Ken Wong's gaming avatar.

Ken Wong

Ken Wong's gaming avatar.

Busting the myth of the anti-social gamer

For Kelly Camarillo, a healthcare worker and gamer in Sacramento, California, gaming has provided a much-needed respite. Camarillo works with cancer patients and says that, as her job has become more stressful during the pandemic, she’s found herself spending more time playing games she loves, like Call of DutyGrand Theft Auto, and Minecraft.

“I just never thought of it as being a stress reliever until I faced COVID and everything else that’s happening,” Camarillo says. “I find it’s very satisfying, it’s healthy and fun, and I get to interact with my kids more.”

Camarillo says several of her co-workers have also taken up gaming more seriously during the crisis since, outside of work, they’re all social distancing and home with their families. “They’re gaming with their kids,” she says, “[It’s like] sitting down at a board game like you used to do in the ’70s and ’80s, only now it’s the gaming system or computer you’re gathering around and having fun.”

Kristopher Alexander, professor of Video Games: Design, Broadcasting, and Esports Infrastructure at Ryerson University’s RTA School of Media, says the gravitation toward video games during the pandemic has started to break down old stereotypes, like “that video games are for the antisocial, for those that generally can’t integrate with society, that it’s only for a few.”

Alexander, an avid gamer himself  says that over the last few decades, games have become increasingly more social. This is partly because a lot of games have made it easier and more rewarding to collaborate in real time through joint missions and virtual socializing, and streaming platforms like Twitch and YouTube Gaming have brought millions of spectators to the game. Alexander says he’s seeing more people taking screenshots of the games they’re playing and posting them on social media, allowing others to connect and extend the conversation about similar interests even further. For instance, in April, a fan designed an online retailer, Nookazon, to trade Animal Crossing: New Horizons items — the site now has 270,000 daily active users

Adam Lobel, a games user researcher with a background in psychology and game design, says that the games that perform best include a social component, which is even more appealing when people’s typical interactions have been disrupted. 

Gaming is healthy now.

Seba Cestaro

Gaming becomes a mental health outlet for individuals in quarantine.

“Unfortunately a lot of people have lost a lot of the things that they do in daily life that bring meaning,” Lobel says. He points to psychology’s self-determination theory, which argues that people are most fulfilled by activities that meet three basic needs — autonomy, competency, and relatedness. That means, respectively, activities that give us control over how we approach something, that allow us to improve in something, and that make us feel part of a larger whole or group. 

“When it’s not as easily apparent where people get those needs fulfilled, video games are an easy place [to turn],” he says.

Bringing new players to the game

While gaming culture can seem intimidating to those who don’t know the language, inside jokes, or understood “rules,” Johnson says she’s seen the gaming community become more welcoming of newbies, as more people look for ways to connect socially, and that many gamers are tapping into the inherent sociability of the medium to support each other during this time. In HP’s survey, people who started gaming during the COVID-19 crisis were twice as likely as non-gamers to say they feel more connected to people now than before the crisis.

“I see this as a way people are there for each other, to play with each other, to listen to each other,” HP’s Johnson says. “People who didn’t know each other two hours ago are asking each other if they have everything they need. It says a lot about the community.”

Alexander says part of the positive experience for new gamers is understanding that the environment extends far beyond just first-person shooter games — there are gaming genres for all interests now. He cites story-rich games like the adventure game Virginia, the music-themed indie game Wandersong, and Neo Cab, a narrative game that addresses surveillance and the gig economy. There are even games centered on coping with crisis and depression, such as Depression Quest and Radiant One. These games existed before the pandemic, but for the many new adopters over the last few months, they’re a revelation. 

“I really appreciate that people are saying, ‘Are there games that talk about race?’ Yes there are,” Alexander says. “‘Are there games where I can learn about coping in a crisis?’ Of course.” 

As more people turn to gaming as a way to pass the time while they’re stuck at home, Johnson says the new experiences they discover — and the social and mental benefits that come with them — could make gaming an important part of their lives after the pandemic. 

“Connecting with this community is just therapeutic,” Johnson says. “It gives us an escape, and everyone needs an escape every once in a while.”


Learn more about inclusive gaming communities.