Are video games bad for mental health? Scientists reveal the psychological truth
“Video games literally allow us to escape negative emotions and suppress them.”
Meditation calms the fear center in your brain, causing the amygdala to shrink. Turns out, video games can do the same thing.
That's the good part. Here's the bad: One researcher's conservative estimate is that five million people in the United States have internet gaming disorder. These players show a loss of relationships, career opportunities, and more.
So are video games good for your mental health? Are they bad for your brain? Or is it somewhere in between? We spoke to two scientific experts to find out.
Video games by the numbers
In the United States, a young person will spend 10,000 hours on average playing online games before their 21st birthday. That adds up to almost the same time the average child in the United States spends in middle and high school — 10,080.
Ultimately, children literally spend years of their life online. (One year is just under 9,000 hours.)
Children can be “virtuoso gamers,” researcher Jane McGonigal says, citing Daniel Kahneman’s infamous theory that it takes 10,000 hours of effortful study to master any skill. By proxy, they may also be getting schooled in social resilience.
Why video games are good for mental health
Working together to reach a shared goal can increase players’ social resilience. Some of the most popular games are collaborative by nature: Minecraft, World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy, and other massively multiplayer online (MMO) games can foster meaningful connections between players and offer a sense of purpose.
Games are also a low-stakes outlet for people to let off steam for when they feel frustrated by their school or work life. “Play therapy" even uses this quality as an advantage, harnessing digital gaming as a psychological tool to encourage people to open up to their therapist online.
Take SuperBetter, which McGonigal created after she experienced a traumatic brain injury. A painful concussion left her immobile and isolated and she wanted to connect with an online support system.
Gaming offered her a community online not tied to her injuries — and she hopes SuperBetter can do the same for others. SuperBetter claims to help players “unlock your heroic potential" and "overcome tough situations" as a group.
Video games saw a 73 percent growth in sales in just one year as people went online to socialize and escape. Some players find virtual worlds can offer a respite from daily worries and help them cope better in the face of seemingly impossible situations.
Why video games are bad for mental health
There is one big caveat to the social and emotional benefits, however: All the positive side effects are only tied to moderate playing habits. Consistent or excessive gameplay (over 20 hours a week, but more on that later) may lead to internet gaming disorder.
Kyle Faust, a researcher at the University of Rhode Island, likens video-game addiction to gambling in some players.
“Internet gaming disorder dates back to the oldest of arcade games,” says Faust. “The problem has increased exponentially due to more immersive and rewarding game structures.”
“Internet gaming disorder dates back to the oldest of arcade games.”
Sophisticated digital games and the sheer number of people playing could make internet gaming disorder "on course to becoming a major public health problem,” he adds.
The disorder is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the U.S.’s manual of psychiatric diagnoses. To qualify for the diagnosis, a person has to show five features for a period of more than 12 months. These include emotional withdrawal, loss of interest in other activities, and gaming to escape negative moods.
Video games and escapism
To understand the roots of escapism, we first have to look at the amygdala. This almond-shaped brain region plays a lead role in decision-making, processing, and emotional responses like fear.
Researchers found that pathological gamers have less dense gray matter in the amygdala in separate studies comparing them to adult males who were not pathological gamers and to university students. In other words, video games can change the mental pathways in the brains of frequent players — possible for the better.
Online games can be a powerful distraction from fear or anxiety, says Dr. Alok Kanojia. “Video games literally allow us to escape negative emotions and suppress them.”
Kanojia is a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School who researches video game addiction. He started a mental health startup called Healthy Gamer after building a community of health-minded gamers on Reddit and Twitch. His Twitch channel of the same name has over half a million followers and streams weekly videos about addiction, depression, and prevention.
Video games, mental health, and moderation
But relying on video games in the long term can be dangerous, Kanojia explains.
“Negative emotions are one of the strongest teachers for the human brain. If a child touches a hot stove once, they learn to never touch it again. Therefore, since video games suppress our negative emotions, they also make it harder to learn from our mistakes.”
One study suggests video games contribute to lower rates of depression — but only for those who play games in moderation, not in excess. Relationships can flourish online if a player is a moderate gamer.
Excess means any play over 20 hours a week, according to a longitudinal study of over 3,000 children and adult gamers in India. The average number of hours played per week was 14 to 16 for young gamers.
“Since video games suppress our negative emotions, they also make it harder to learn from our mistakes.”
In the lives of pathological gamers, loneliness rises and social competence decreases. Gamers who spend excess hours online risk the decline of relationships or careers that already exist in their life.
Adolescents with developing brains are also more vulnerable to the harmful effects of excessive gaming. An hour of gameplay a day can bring tangible emotional and mental benefits, but real psychological damage starts knocking on the door with excessive play.
So are video games good or bad for mental health?
Kyle Faust would say they’re good, in certain situations. "Though digital games may be fictional in content, in the extreme, the consequences are real and warrant attention," he writes in a recent study.
However, Kanojia wouldn't necessarily agree. He believes that healthy gaming can "help the internet generation succeed."
It's hard to answer if a digital detox from video games is worth it. The short answer is that it’s not black and white, but a few things are unmistakably true:
- Gameplay is therapy for some. It can boost your social skills and mental resilience.
- Humans are social creatures who don’t exactly thrive during isolation. Playing online offers solace to those feeling alone.
- Escaping into a virtual world is not a healthy, long-term solution to deal with negative emotions.
- An excess of gameplay is like an excess of any vice — it can rip apart your social and emotional life if left unchecked.