Ever since an 8-bit Italian plumber rescued a princess from a fire-breathing dragon more than 30 years ago, we’ve been reminded constantly by a cast of high-profile, opinionated folk (parents/teachers/politicians) that “video games rot your brain.” 

Sure, randomised loot boxes that spawn gambling addictions are nothing short of evil, and as of 2018 ‘Gaming Disorder’ is an official illness recognised by the World Health Organisation… So, what better time than the age of COVID-19 to sink countless hours into playing The Last of Us Part II?

I recently took some annual leave from work, which in these ‘strange and uncertain times’ meant I was homebound. Because jumping on a plane and smashing a couple of cocktails in Santorini wasn’t really an option, my staycation consisted of ignoring basic hygiene/a balanced diet/regular exercise and immersing myself within the dreary, pandemic-ridden world of Naughty Dog’s highly anticipated grief simulator PlayStation 4 title.

The irony is not lost on me: I locked myself inside my home to protect myself from infection in the midst of a worldwide pandemic to do *pretty much* the exact same thing, virtually.

But it was surprisingly therapeutic, backing up a slew of recent studies that have shown that, rather than hinder, playing video games can actually help people level up and take on one of life’s biggest Warios: poor mental health.

It’s the end of the world as we know it…

The world of TLOU2 can be best summed up as ‘super bleak.’ It’s 2039, and Earth has been devastated by a disease that turns people into mindless, flesh-eating zombies with fungus growing out of them. Ew.

Supplies are limited to non-existent and masks are a necessity in infection ‘hotspots’. Sound familiar? (Okay, except for the zombie part.) You play as Ellie, a young woman born into the pandemic, navigating your way through the dilapidated ruins of an America nature has begun to reclaim.

I died. (A lot.) I regularly had the shit scared out of me. I didn’t sleep enough. I was often agitated while playing, not to mention emotionally drained by the game’s heavy musings on revenge and the eternal nature of the cycle of violence.

These are understandably, not an array of ‘feels’ that one usually associates with a cheeky little getaway. In fact, they’re usually tell tale signs of poor mental health.Skip YouTube Video

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Under normal circumstances TLOU2 would be considered at the very least to be: extremely dark, joyless and stressful. But these aren’t normal circumstances we live in.

By the time the credits rolled, I felt great. So good in fact, that I immediately started the game again.

It got me thinking: why would anyone want to put themselves through any kind of extracurricular stress, at a time where day-to-day living is more stressful than ever? Sure, outside is pretty scary at the moment, but have you ever tried to craft a molotov cocktail while a group of ‘clickers’ are screaming in the next room and you’re all out of rags and alcohol? link

I knew that gaming made me feel better, but I wanted to know how and why. So I asked some people whose jobs and research revolve around video games.

Brain Training

Dr Vanessa Cheng, from Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre, reckons it all has to do with control. “Knowing that you’re interacting with a system that has set rules and parameters is reassuring when the world outside the game is full of uncertainty.” 

Video games also provide a relatively safer environment to experience failure, which can translate into better coping when unexpected problems occur in the real world. “Plus, you can usually save and restart.” (Perfect for me, considering how often I died :-/ )

In terms of what’s going on inside our gamer heads, Dr Cheng imagines that video games have similar effects on our brains the same way that problem-solving or performing creative activities can.

At a base level, they are similar to the effects that ‘play’ has on the brain; “emotional regulation, improving mastery and feeling a sense of control after overcoming challenges.”

AKA happy vibes, which explains why it feels so damn good finally clearing a dilapidated area full of zombies completely unnoticed, using no ammo with items to spare.

David Milner, award-winning video game critic, agrees that control is crucial. Video games provide a sense of agency and control, of which there isn’t a lot of right now. Simply put: “Action A (Mario jumping on a Goomba always triggers Result B (Goomba is defeated).”Skip gfycat embed

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This feels good!

“We’re living in a time where the most careful, considerate person can suffer because of the actions of inconsiderate people,” David added.

“Politicians and businesses seemingly suffer no consequences for abhorrent behaviour. There’s little order or comfort in that. But the ability to save the world, stop the baddies, and have a video game world react predictably to your actions – that can be empowering to a person feeling powerless.”

The former editor of Game Informer, David believes control is just one of four key reasons why people use gaming as a salve during times of high stress. 

The second is the same as why we engage with any piece of art: on a deep level, we’re all looking for a greater understanding of the human condition. 

“Right now the world is unsettling, and many of us are troubled on a pretty existential level. A good game, like a good book or a good album, provides those beautiful little moments that make us feel less alone, like our experience is more universal.” 

Thirdly, is how videogames allow us to explore. One thing that corona has firmly stamped out for a lot of us is travel.

“We enjoy travelling and going on adventures, discovering new places. We simply cannot do that in the real world right now. But a huge sprawling open game world is probably the best available substitute for that particular itch.”

The final and most obvious reason of all: gaming is a great distraction. 

“Games are incredibly good at sucking you into their worlds and demanding your full attention. It’s what they’re designed to do. If what you’re looking for most right now is a temporary but all-consuming reprieve from the real world, video games are a relatively healthy option.”

What was it about the heavy as hell, dark and unpleasant TLOU2 universe that was more calming than, say, tending to my digital neighbours’ needs in Animal Crossing?

“We all function differently, and so if something works for you as an individual, go with it,” David said. As for why certain people gravitate to different types of games, it comes back to that fourth reason: what is it that they’re looking for in a game? 

“If it’s escape and distraction, then something like Animal Crossing is perfect. It’s cutesy and wholesome and there’s a sense of order. It’s also just packed with busy work, tasks to attend to, and the death toll is pleasantly low.”

As for folks with masochistic tendencies (like me), David believes that some of us don’t want a distraction, that we’d rather lean into the COVID-19 moment.

“They want to understand and connect to art, so something like TLOU2, with its eerily on-topic story about a killer virus and armed libertarian nutjobs roaming the streets; that can help too, just for different reasons and on a different level.”

Makes sense. Want to understand more about the complex feelings you’re having about the effects of a worldwide pandemic? Why not thrust yourself into a controlled, digital version of one?

But you know what’s potentially scarier than scrounging for supplies and impaling sharp things into undead things in a zombie-infested world? Relationships.

Enter Florence

Compared to TLOU2Florence is about as far from a bloody, violent gorefest as you can get. It’s a mobile game about a young woman’s first love, created by Mountains, a small Melbourne-based “craft games studio”.

In Florence, the player guides the titular character through navigating the first steps of a blossoming romance and its (spoiler) eventual disintegration. A gentle and emotional experience, Florence perfectly translates the charming, unspoken slice-of-life moments of a relationship’s early days.Skip YouTube Video

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In the game, you help Florence complete relatable daily routines by completing puzzle-like challenges, from endlessly scrolling through social media on public transport to helping your partner unpack their belongings after moving into your apartment. 

It’s simple, but the game went on to take home several awards and topped a stack of ‘best of’ end-of-year lists.

The game’s lead designer, Ken Wong (also responsible for the excellent Monument Valley) believes that while videogames are traditionally very good at simulating experiences with clear outcomes (“sports, making money, defeating enemies, survival”), games like Florence, which “tell stories, explore relationships, and aim to have an emotional impact on players often require a deep literacy of games and a lot of patience to appreciate.”

“I think what we tried to do with Florence was to take all the emotional power that videogames are capable of, but deliver it in a form that even the most casual of audiences could access, play, and reflect on in a short amount of time,” he added.

For example, the age-old task of ‘making awkward conversationon a first date’ is represented by fitting together puzzle-pieces in an empty speech bubble. link

Ken said the studio often receives emails from gamers about the game’s positive impact on their mental health.

“For some players, it’s helped them process relationships or breakups they’ve had in the past. There’s something at the core of how Florence’s mechanics and story are intertwined that elicits empathy in people.”

Wait, so games are good for you!?

Games helping people!? But what about the ol’ “video games are bad for you” campaign? Is there any truth to it?

“There is definitely a stigma and it’s increasingly outdated,” Dr Cheng assures. “Recent research has questioned the quality of the literature used to prop up this claim by critiquing their subjective measures.”

Participants were asked to subjectively rate how aggressive the video games they play are, so more aggressive individuals might be more biased in viewing things around them as more threatening.

David thinks that while the overall perception towards gaming has shifted – thanks to popular mainstream titles like Wii Sports and Guitar Hero that appealed to traditional non-gamers – some stigma remains. And it’s all to do with time and demographics.

“Games are older now, so people making decisions in powerful positions grew up with video games. They’re no longer the scary new entertainment platform. People always fear and demonise new things they don’t understand. It seems absurd now but jazz music and paperback novels fell into this category at one point in time.”

Animal Crossing vs Doom: which is the true game for Our Times?

Slaying demons or paying off eternal debt? You’ll be surprised which is better suited for Iso Mode.

Unlike a paperback novel, or film and television, where a viewer would passively follow two characters interact, our ability to inhabit videogame characters makes for a different experience.

Even though Florence doesn’t offer the player a lot of actual choices, it places the player in Florence’s shoes while she’s making important choices and living through her experiences.

“Because Florence arrives in a better place at the end of the game,” says Ken; “Getting through some tough times, we as the player feel that growth and catharsis too.”

While Florence doesn’t tap into the brain’s desire for ‘control and agency’ as much as TLOU2, (it’s described as an ‘interactive story’), Florence does allow a gamer to explore and reflect on their own emotions and feelings, gaining a greater understanding of what makes them tick. And that’s as good for mental health as surviving a digital pandemic.

“Depending on the game, a videogame can feel like going on a hike; like solving a maze; like knitting a scarf, or like gardening” Ken said. “They can make us feel beautiful, powerful, rich, even loved. So it’s not surprising that videogames can have a benefit to our mental health.”

So, next time you find yourself sinking time into demon fragging in Doom or paying back Tom Nook, remember: it’s fine to distract yourself with a virtual world. Think of it as levelling up your mental health XP.