U of S research finds video games can relieve stress, improve mental health

You might be worried the kids, or even yourself, are spending too much time playing Fortnite or Animal Crossing.

But University of Saskatchewan computer science professor Regan Mandryk says video games aren’t just a mindless way to waste time.

They can have health benefits, especially when we are all self-isolating.

Mandryk’s latest research shows video games can actually help reduce stress and improve mental health.

“When people play video games they actually have a lot of benefits to our emotional health or social health and our mental well-being,” Mandryk said.

University of Saskatchewan professor Regan Mandrk says gaming can help reduce stress and improve mental health. (Martin Lipman/NSERC)

The U of S research looked at all age groups — from pre-literate children through to older adults living in long term care homes — though the primary focus was on 18 to 55-year-olds.

Mandryk said they looked at how playing video games can benefit people’s emotional and mental health, how it helps them connect socially to others and its cognitive benefits.

She said they found different features in games had different benefits.

For example, researchers are finding action video games have a lot of cognitive benefits.

“Games that allow you to connect with other people and work together toward a shared goal or compete in a friendly environment also have lots of benefits for helping you socialize,” Mandryk said.

Fortnite is a prime example, she said.

“It allows you to escape psychologically, have a little bit of psychological detachment from what’s going on around you,” Mandryk said. “It helps you relax. It helps you feel like you’re mastering challenges and it helps you feel like you have control over your environment — which are four main pieces to help you recover from stress.”

Being physically apart from the rest of the world because of the pandemic is stressful and it is hard to socialize.

“Especially for kids … it’s very hard for them to sit down in front of a video chat window and have a conversation,” Mandryk said.

“That’s not how kids communicate with each other. They play with each other and they do things together. But when they can’t do that physically, they can do that right now in a game like Minecraft that allows them to build together, to be creative, to express themselves in the way that they feel most natural to express themselves.”

A scene from Animal Crossing New Horizons. (Nintendo)

The pandemic is creating a situation where we don’t feel any control of our world.

“And one of the big components of what stresses us out as humans is that feeling of uncontrollability, not knowing what’s going on around you and not feeling like you have any kind of control over it,” Mandryk said.

Games can help us recover because they allow us to feel in control, at least over a digital environment.

Mandryk said the researchers aren’t sure how long people can play before there are diminishing returns on the benefits. 

“As long as you’re not replacing all those other things that we know are also good for you like exercise, fresh air, talking to others, I don’t think we should be worried about how much time we’re spending on them.”

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