Written by Nikki Cox
Games are an integral part of human behaviour. It is normal and healthy to engage in play as part of daily life, including playing games online. The proliferation of personal screens in our everyday lives (phones, tablets, laptops) means that online gaming, or playful digital activities, can be accessed at most times and in most places.
Until recently, research into the effects of online gaming has focused predominantly on the negative, however this focus has shifted dramatically in the last 15 years. We are now starting to see that online gaming in fact adds to our wellbeing, particularly in the areas of emotional regulation, relationships, mental health and creativity.
The Importance of Play
‘Playing’ is a form of self-nourishment, but we often see it as unproductive, time-wasting, selfish or just for kids. The truth is, play is just as critical to adults as it is for children, for a balanced, happy, fulfilling life. But play is more than just fun activities; it’s an attitude to transform the way you see things. It’s doing anything in life with humour, goodwill, compassion, openness and with a light touch and heart, whilst also being respectful.
Many people have low self-esteem for a variety of reasons, however, regular participation in play-based activities (i.e. activities that are voluntarily done to spend away from stress, such as sport, gardening, reading, walking, baking, etc.) can increase your self-esteem levels, and this extends to those who engage in online gaming.
Having positive self-esteem adds to your quality of life and general well-being through positive emotions and decreased stress. There is also a strong connection between positive self-esteem and happiness, as well as negative self-esteem and depression.
As your self-esteem levels increase, this will improve the view you have of yourself, which will then increase the likelihood that you will actively seek play activities. So the more you do these activities, the easier it becomes to maintain the momentum!
Other Offline Gaming Influences
Firstly, playing online games allows you to express yourself in ways that you may otherwise not feel comfortable doing offline. The anonymity, as well as the fantasy, of online games and their virtual worlds free you from your real life situation, allowing you to be more like the person you wish to be.
To add to this, most people who play online games choose a character that displays desirable qualities so that they can imagine themselves as a better version of themselves. As a result, you begin making conscious efforts to emulate your characters’ better traits in the offline world.
Secondly, online games are also often used for emotional regulation and stability; they help you to relax, to forget problems and worries, to “let off steam”, and to feel less lonely. Feelings of anger, guilt, or frustration dissipate after some time spent in game play, which results in you feeling much happier. All of this is connected to your choice of online game; we tend to choose games that will suit our desire to feel better as a result of playing.
Finally, social interactions in online gaming that involve large numbers of other players form a considerable element in the enjoyment of playing. Friendships that are formed in online games have been shown to be comparable or better than offline friendships and often you can play these kinds of games to extend your real life relationships, as well as meet new people.
Not only is online gaming highly social, but a high percentage of gamers end up making life-long friends and partners from the opportunities provided through the interactivity element of online games. Many people take the next step and actually meet with their online friends in offline situations.
Possible Warning Signs
Any behaviour, when taken to extreme, can have a negative impact on a person’s everyday life. Over engagement in online gaming can be a symptom that other things in your life might not be going so well.
Often it can be hard to know the difference between normal behaviour, such as occasional moodiness and irritability, and an emerging mental health issue. Feeling down, tense, angry, anxious or moody are all normal emotions, but when these feelings persist for long periods (some weeks) of time, and if they begin to interfere with daily life, they may be cause for concern.
It’s important to keep an eye out for significant changes that last longer than you might expect (at least a few weeks), such as:
- being less interested and involved in activities you would normally enjoy
- changes in appetite or sleeping patterns
- being easily irritated or angry
- your performance in study or work is not as good as it once was
- involving yourself in risky behaviour you would usually avoid, such as taking drugs or drinking too much alcohol
- difficulties with concentration or motivation
- seeming unusually stressed or worried, or feeling down or crying for no apparent reason
- expressing negative, distressing or out-of-character thoughts
It can be helpful to take some time to understand your online gaming experience:
- the reasons you like the game
- what you get from the experience
- if you see difficulties in the way the game is played
- what you do when the game doesn’t go well
- who you are playing with and the kinds of interactions you are having
This will help you identify any concerns and have constructive conversations with the people closest to you about your gaming use.
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Colwell, J 2007, ‘Needs met through computer game play among adolescents,’ Personality & Individual Differences, vol. 43, pp. 2072-82.
Durkin, K & Barber, B 2002, ‘Not so doomed: Computer game play and positive adolescent development,’ Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, vol. 23, pp. 373-392.
Yee, N 2006, ‘Motivations for playing online games,’ Cyberpsychology and Behaviour, vol. 9(6), pp. 772-775.