Videogames have long been a subject of controversy, especially for parents concerned about the negative influence of excessive gaming on child and adolescent health. And while “gaming disorder” has been recognized as a legitimate mental health condition by the World Health Organization (1), the recent global pandemic has also given videogaming a unique opportunity to be recognized not simply as a harmful practice or a casual means of entertainment, but also as a potential mental health resource.
It is no surprise that COVID-19 has been related to significant mental health decline across populations as youth and adults alike have struggled to deal with changing environments, unprecedented challenges, and looming uncertainties. Rates of depression and anxiety have risen drastically over the past few months and a poll conducted in mid-July showed that 53% of U.S. adults felt that their mental health had been negatively impacted due to the stress and worry caused by the coronavirus (2). In addition to this, initial quarantine measures restricted most people to their homes, a necessary but suffocating mandate that added social deprivation to the list of ongoing struggles. And yet, it was in the face of such daunting circumstances that millions of people around the world found joy and comfort in the March release of Animal Crossing New Horizons, a Nintendo Switch videogame.
In a nutshell, Animal Crossing New Horizons is a social stimulation console game that involves playing as a human character in a village inhabited by cute, anthropomorphic animals. There is no real objective, and you are free to build a home, interact with other characters, or engage in casual activities like fishing and trading to pass time. The colorful settings, slow-paced and simple gameplay, as well as pleasant background music all contribute to the overall meditative effect of the game, which has served as a great source of distraction and mental refuge for many people who would otherwise be anxious and overwhelmed by the current, real-world events. The game is also prosocial in nature and encourages communication with in-game characters, as well as the avatars of other players, creating a platform for productive and enriching socialization during a time when face-to-face encounters are difficult and discouraged (3). Not only Animal Crossing, but other videogames with open-world and multiplayer mechanics have allowed players to get out of their heads, feel more in control, connect with both friends and strangers, and overall exist more freely in virtual spaces than what their current realities permit.
Of course, everything is best in moderation, and too much gaming nonetheless poses certain harm to those guilty of it. However, with the transition to a digital era that has only been quickened by the advent of COVID-19, it is important that we do not write off videogames as automatically detrimental and recognize that there may be ways to use this broad and diverse digital platform to promote mental health and wellness within the larger population. Beyond the soothing effects of games like Animal Crossing New Horizons, there have already been other steps taken to incorporate game-like mechanisms into various health apps and specific treatment interventions for mental health disorders like ADHD (4). Evidently, videogames have the potential to be a viable mechanism for distributing mental health resources and fostering well-being and it will be exciting to see how digital health professionals continue to adapt and utilize them in their future practices.
- World Health Organization (2019). Sharpening the focus on gaming disorder. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 97, 382-383. doi:10.2471/BLT.19.020619
- Panchal, N., Kamal, R., Orgera, K., Cox, C., Garfield, R., Hamel, L., Muñana, C., & Chidambaram, P. (2020). The implications of COVID-19 for mental health and substance use. KFF. Retrieved from https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/issue-brief/the-implications-of-covid-19-for-mental-health-and-substance-use/view/footnotes/
- McPhillips, K. (2020). How COVID-19 made playing videogames a mental-health practice. Healthy Mind. Retrieved from https://www.wellandgood.com/video-games-mental-health-covid-19/
- 4 examples of merging gaming & digital health (2020). The Medical Futurist. Retrieved from https://medicalfuturist.com/4-examples-of-merging-gaming-digital-health/