Why video games make people happy

DANIEL JOHNSON
Last updated 11:25 09/10/2013
Gamer
MCT
LEVEL UP: Perhaps video games aren't the enemy? Research suggests they can be used as a way to empower young people to manage their mental health and wellbeing.

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OPINION: Video games, whether violent or not, are a lightning rod for speculation and fear regarding their impact on children and adults alike.

Yet, we do not have to go far back in time when almost identical expressions of concern were made regarding comic books, novels and various genres of music - from rock to punk.

While it would be foolish to suggest that every instance of a particular type of media is appropriate to all age groups (clearly Grand Theft Auto and A Clockwork Orange were not made to be consumed by children), it is essential that we take a balanced and considered approach.

Our research has shown a range of benefits associated with playing video games, whatever their content.

We have shown improvements in mood, reductions in stress, and feelings of competence and autonomy resulting from playing video games.

Our studies of play with others have revealed benefits for young people in terms of social wellbeing and feelings of relatedness.

But importantly, we have also found co-operative video game play to be associated with increased brain activity for younger people.

More broadly, using a well validated measure of mental health and wellbeing, we have found evidence that for adult players, a positive impact on wellbeing resulted from playing video games with other people.

In a randomised controlled trial with a clinically depressed sample of adults, the positive influences of video games have been shown to include a reduction in tension, anger, depression and fatigue and increase in vigour.

Importantly, these improvements were supported by associated changes in brain activity and heart rate variability. Research focusing on video game play among children has suggested that the best outcomes are associated with moderate video game play as opposed to no play or excessive play.

These benefits have extended to greater positive emotions, having less risky friendship networks, better self-esteem and higher levels of family closeness.

While dysfunctional patterns of play can occur, we need to be cautious about assumptions regarding children and video game playing.

Researchers at the University of Rochester, New York, have shown that whether people engage with video games in a healthy way is a consequence of whether certain basic needs (feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness) are being met in their lives.

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If your needs are not being met and you are less satisfied in your everyday life, you are more likely to engage unhealthily with video games and for play to result in less enjoyment and more tension.

In contrast, if you are broadly happy and satisfied, you are more likely to engage with video games in a balanced, healthy way and your video game playing is likely to lead to feelings of enjoyment and increased energy.

There is a range of evidence that suggests video games can positively impact a young player's wellbeing.

Translating this research into practical guidelines about gaming and wellbeing that can be used by parents and professionals is critical.

Importantly, there are also clear opportunities to use video games as a way to empower young people to manage their mental health and wellbeing, and potentially circumvent psychological distress.

An important thing is that players (and their parents) engage thoughtfully with what they are playing.

Games like Minecraft and Portal 2 are appropriate for a wide age range and encourage creativity and co-operation.

Even more adult-themed and violent video games can have a positive influence - but who the player is and the nature of their engagement will influence the impact of such games.

Daniel Johnson is director of the QUT games research lab and leads the gaming research group at the Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre.

- FFX Aus

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