Updated: Dec 31, 2020
I will be the first to say that I am not a gamer, and I probably never will be. When I was a child, we never had any kind of gaming console, and my computer games were limited to Poptropica and assorted princess dress up games. Today, I don’t invest any of my money in video games. The only ‘gaming’ I do is done in the wee hours of the night, spent building houses in Minecraft on my friend’s Nintendo Switch. But my friends love video games. A few months back, we declared a ‘teach Izzy how to play video games night,’ wherein I struggled through rounds of Mortal Combat and Fortnite.
Unlike me, my friends grew up playing video games. For some, gaming was a fun pastime for their families- which has turned into a habit as they got older. But for others, video games were almost a savior when they experienced hardship.
Also unlike some of my friends, I’ve had a pretty easy life. One friend in particular- his name is Gage- has had an incredibly tough life. As Gage has revealed increasing details about the trauma from his childhood, he has also shared the ways in which he got through those tough experiences.
Gage’s mother was extremely abusive, the details of which are intense and not something to share online. He told me that at one point, as a way for her to exercise power over him, Gage’s mother only let him hang out with one friend, and even those interactions were extremely limited. For a lot of his childhood, his mother isolated him from other kids his age. Isolation as a child can be extremely detrimental to mental health, but Gage told me he was able to find community and comfort when playing video games. Through the online communities of his different games, he could hang out virtually with an infinite amount of people, and was even able to make friends online. For Gage, video games were incredibly important growing up, because they were a way for him to find solace when he was experiencing trauma as a child.
After this interaction with Gage, I was curious to see what my other self proclaimed ‘gamer’ friends had to say about the impact of video games on their lives. Of course, some may argue that despite the outcries of the masses, playing video games is actually harming kids. Some research has suggested that video games may be responsible for increased violence and aggression in the children who play them. But there is even more research to debunk this. And if you talk to anyone who regularly plays video games, they are more than likely going to dispel this argument and tell you how video games enrich their lives.
So how do video games improve the lives of teens? According to teen game players themselves, what keeps them coming back are the friends found online, the ability to temporarily escape, and the momentary rush of dopamine from a job well done. One of my more bookish friends told me that video games offered her something that reading a book didn’t- the ability to be completely immersed in a world, and a feeling of connectedness. When reading, she always felt a bit of distance from the characters. Playing video games feels more authentic.
As for playing with friends, this was the most common answer. Teens are playing video games so that they can connect with their friends. For many of the people I talked to, video games were especially important during quarantine. While people weren’t able to enjoy the company of their friends in person, they were always able to ‘hang out’ virtually. And as the gaming community grows, more people are seeking out a community within them, something they didn’t have before. They offer the ability to connect while playing, and outside of the game through the common bond between people who play the same games.
One person even went as far as saying that streaming platforms like Twitch gave him positive role models to look up to. This was Nic, who actually had an incredibly nuanced answer to the simple question: why do you play video games? He told me that while playing video games began as a pastime he was able to share with his dad and sister, he soon fell in love with gaming because of its competitive nature. Nic was compelled by the ability to improve his skills the more he played, and found that gaming was an outlet for his normal competitiveness. Today, they play an integral role in Nic’s life, and serve a purpose beyond quick entertainment.
The argument that Gage made earlier is actually something that lacks research and information. The idea that video games can help people experiencing trauma is being explored with veterans who suffer from PTSD. The findings of recent experiments explain that the benefit has less to do with the content of the game, but is actually related to the gratification of achieving the tasks within the game. Many veterans within research studies are playing first person shooter games that simulate similar conditions they may have experienced while deployed. While you may think that this could be cause for trauma, it’s not. Veterans are able to distinguish that the game isn’t real, citing that the actual experience of going to war is completely different.
The idea of video games as a form of therapy would seem unfathomable to someone the creators of Pong. But most of the people who play video games aren’t trying to cope with PTSD. If you ask a habitual gamer why they play, you’ll get a variety of answers. But it really boils down to two key benefits: that it’s a place to convene with friends, and that it’s a good escape. The world is looking even more grim as the days go on, but for some, video games are something to look forward to on their most horrible days. I think a quick vacation from the real world is something everyone could appreciate.
Izzy Burgess is the managing editor at The Incandescent Review and a pink-haired librarian currently residing in Boise, Idaho. She is a queer feminist activist and easily distracted by shiny objects.