Updated: Feb 27
Video games have done a lot to rid the assumption that they are mind-numbing violence simulators and are now widely used as tools to learn, do low-stress exercise, treat PTSD, and even build mental resilience. In 2008 a group at the University of Washington developed a virtual reality game called Snow World to reduce pain for burn victims during treatment. It had phenomenal effects, the immersion provides a distraction, and being set in a cold environment helped patients feel cooler. Distraction is often been used to cope with pain or unpleasant situations. Being told to wiggle your toes during a blood test or getting asked a lot of questions during a painful procedure are both common examples of using distraction to reduce pain and distress. The immersive effect game developers aim for provides an enhanced distraction and the pain management effects are something I have unknowingly relied upon most of my life.
Undiagnosed Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) meant my young life was spent in a lot of pain and confusion, but luckily, I had video games to turn to. When my symptoms meant I had to stay home from school I would spend my time playing video games, and they would help me recover as well as keep my mind active with puzzles and challenges. My EDS means I am in constant but ever-changing pain, particularly joint pain. Now that I am aware of my EDS and have more medical support, I can understand and consciously tackle these symptoms. This is where video games come in, they are one of the few things that help with both my physical and mental symptoms. Experiencing constant pain is exhausting; being able to dull the pain if only for a moment is enough to recuperate the energy needed to continue my day’s tasks. Many people who experience chronic pain could benefit from the relieving effects of video games if only more people accepted and knew of the benefits instead of pegging video games, and often chronically ill and disabled people themselves, as lazy and time wasting. The time I spend playing video games is vital to my wellbeing and allows some control over my pain and distress.
Pain reduction is not the only benefit of playing video games, they have been found to greatly benefit mental health and resilience. A safe environment with little or no real-world consequences allows players to feel and work through emotions they may otherwise not experience. Personally, I used to cope awfully with failure, I would get very frustrated, and quickly give up. When I would fail a game, I got to work through those feelings and keep trying, making it easier to identify and work through those feelings when they were triggered, often more intensely, by real-world events. Games, and more specifically Crash Bandicoot, taught me the value of trying again and developing your approach until you get it right.
The effects of playing games will depend on the game and the person. I get a lot of pain and stress relief playing Stardew Valley, a game in which you run a farm, make friends with your neighbours, and play a part in the direction of your community. The gameplay and challenges allow me to relax and focus on my farm and friendships, however, some people find managing these things stressful and this stress can be detrimental to physical and mental health.
Gardening is something that I cannot do without damaging my body, so games like Stardew Valley and Animal Crossing allow me to have an experience close to actual gardening, giving me similar mental benefits that gardening in real life would.
The experiences I can have in video games help mental health and resilience in ways that similar experiences in the world would. While you could get these benefits from other avenues such as engaging in community, trying new hobbies or skills, and interpersonal relationships, these pathways are not accessible to all. I am often housebound, only leaving to do my necessary shopping and self-care trips. Games are a perfect way for me to interact with a world that is less fatiguing than the real one, and as long as I maintain a healthy relationship and don’t get lost in there, it is a beneficial way for me to experience and understand emotions and situations I may not have otherwise found myself in.