How video games have improved players’ well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic

The following is an excerpt from a new paper, Playing Video Games During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Effects on Players’ Well-Being, published in Games and Culture. In the paper, we identify seven ways that video games have helped players cope with lockdown during the pandemic, three of which are discussed below: agency, normalisation, and socialisation.


Agency

“It is a welcome distraction from the news, there’s a feeling of control within the context and confines of the game.”

This theme brings together responses relating to feelings of competence and achievement: “It gives me a sense of purpose. Something to work towards and a sense of achievement” (P394); productivity: “The reward system gives the illusion of productivity” (P115); and, fulfillment: “It’s been a very stabilising influence – having a hobby where I can practice and improve is very fulfilling, and having something satisfying to work towards has been important” (P26). As noted elsewhere, games are here compared favourably with social media: “It’s something ‘productive’, in that I have missions that unfold into more objectives. It’s like a fun check list to do and it makes me feel like I’m doing more than just scrolling mindlessly on social media or something” (P624); and more passive entertainment: “ feels far more fulfilling than just watching something on Netflix” (P399). Players also gain an otherwise lacking feeling of being in control from playing games: “It’s helped provide a weird sense of accomplishment and control” (P196); “I feel a better sense of control” (P250).

Player agency is widely considered to be a significant property of video games, and an intrinsic aspect of their appeal (Frasca, 2001; Domsch, 2013). This appeal is rooted in the feelings of competence (or efficacy) and autonomy (or personal agency) that games are apt to produce. According to Self-Determination Theory (SDT), competence and autonomy are, along with relatedness, the three basic psychological needs that humans must have satisfied to ensure well-being (Ryan and Deci, 2000). SDT is frequently used to understand motivations for playing video games (Ryan et al., 2006) and to help explain some of the positive outcomes associated with well-being (Jackson et al., 2012; Adachi and Willoughby, 2017; Reer and Kramer, 2018). Certainly, the theory provides a useful means of understanding why participants here connect playing games with improved well-being: games are addressing basic needs that are otherwise not being satisfied under lockdown conditions.

Normalisation

Participants noted that continuing to play video games gave them a sense of normality: “Playing video games has brought a sense of normality to everything” (P18); “…being able to play them like normal with more time a day for them just lets me maintain a comfortable sense of normalcy” (P599). Players report that games provide structure and routine, too: “Animal Crossing gave me a sense of routine; a world to go to at particular times every day”; “The routine in [Stardew Valley] helped fill in where my personal routine was gone” (P224). Including games in the daily routine also helps demarcate work life from home life, in the absence of a normal routine or commute: “I play at the end of the working day, it helps separate work time from non-work, a separation that used to be marked by commuting home” (P219); “A different stimulus from the working from home routines” (P222).

The routine in Stardew Valley helped fill in where my personal routine was gone
“The routine in Stardew Valley helped fill in where my personal routine was gone”. Image: stardewvalley.net

In their guidance for coping with coverage of the coronavirus, the American Psychological Association suggests that “maintaining social networks can foster a sense of normality” (APA, 2020). Meanwhile, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that citizens should “try to do enjoyable activities and return to normal life as much as possible” during a crisis (CDC, 2020). The social aspects of gaming are discussed below, but the emphasis on maintaining a sense of normality is clear in both pieces of advice. As well as providing a means of socialising, it is apparent that players also see playing games as a continuation of their normal lives, and an enjoyable experience, too.

Socialisation

“It has helped to keep me in touch with friends who I can’t see in person, and has kept me from being completely isolated at home. Some friends have started to play video games with our gaming group when they had not expressed an interest before. This has been very positive – it’s good to be able to share your hobby with people!”

Finally, the social nature of video games pervades the data relating to well-being: “…allows me to socialise with friends nearly every day” (P60); “It’s made it easier for me as I live alone. I can enjoy playing games online with family/friends and it’s a good way to stay social” (P200); “I’ve also been playing a lot of multiplayer games with friends […] and it’s helping everyone combat loneliness and isolation” (P18). Players also feel connected, or part of a community, e.g., “I felt connected to a community of people who I could talk to” (P21). Family cohesion is also enhanced: “Video games have had a really positive impact on our family relationships as we are playing a lot of games together” (P218); “I’ve also been gaming with my sibling, which we did not previously do regularly, and that weekly social contact has been very valuable for us.” (P29).

The social aspects of playing video games, while not always at the forefront of the public consciousness, are well documented in the literature. The social capital (Bourdieu, 1986; Putnam et al., 2000 accumulated through online multiplayer gaming, for example, has been associated with improved well-being, health, and happiness (Reer and Quandt, 2019). Game-based socialisation has also been found to be associated with reduced feelings of loneliness, as expressed by participants here (Kaye et al., 2017). Of particular relevance here is the finding that playing games online can provide both online and offline social support (Trepte et al., 2012).

Barr, M., & Copeland-Stewart, A. (2021). Playing Video Games During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Effects on Players’ Well-Being. Games and Culture. https://doi.org/10.1177/15554120211017036


Works Cited

Adachi, P. J. C., & Willoughby, T. (2017). The Link Between Playing Video Games and Positive Youth Outcomes. Child Development Perspectives, 11(3), 202–206. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12232

APA. (2020, March). Five Ways to View Coverage of the Coronavirus. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/pandemics

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. In John Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241–258). Greenwood Press.

CDC. (2020, July 6). Coping with a Disaster or Traumatic Event. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://emergency.cdc.gov/coping/selfcare.asp

Domsch, S. (2013). Storyplaying: Agency and Narrative in Video Games. De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110272451

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Reer, F., & Quandt, T. (2019). Digital Games and Well-Being: An Overview. In R. Kowert (Ed.), Video Games and Well-being: Press Start (pp. 1–21). Springer Nature.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25(1), 54–67. https://doi.org/10.1006/ceps.1999.1020

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Trepte, S., Reinecke, L., & Juechems, K. (2012). The social side of gaming: How playing online computer games creates online and offline social support. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(3), 832–839. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2011.12.003

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