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Video Games as Coping during COVID-19

May 18, 2020

Dr. Drew Zaitsoff playing a video gameWith all of the quarantine and social distancing we’re all living with, a lot of us are trying to find new ways to cope with the stress. Along with music, video games are a way to appropriately keep you distancing while still being social. There are any number of games that let you spend time with your friends at a distance, and if you’re reading this website you have the technology available to play them. When I was in graduate school, my dissertation looked into finding positive mental health effects of playing video games. One that stood out was that people who had an engaged, balanced style of gameplay reported increased social connection. The games were fun on their own, but they also served as a way to spend time with friends or event just random people on the internet who share an interest. In the situation we’re in now, this could be the virtual equivalent of running into someone on campus.

Games are also spaces where you accomplish things. Now, when so many people are feeling helpless and out of the loop, succeeding in a game can give you a sense of getting something done. For myself, in the past few weeks I’ve been playing a city builder game. Realistically, I have no sway over how fast this crisis is over, but I can make certain that this digital world is well-kept. I’m not claiming that helping your neighbors in Animal Crossing is equivalent to actually helping your community; it’s not, and shouldn’t take the place of doing what you can to make sure your local food bank is stocked and your frontline medical workers have what they need to do their jobs. But at a time when our real-life goals can feel so far apart and sometimes out of reach, it can be helpful to have some smaller virtual goals to fill in.

Now, even with these benefits in mind, I don’t believe that video games are the be-all end-all of managing our mental health in the Time of COVID. Everyone has a range of needs, and a lot of these needs simply aren’t addressed by playing games. Our bodies need to be physically active. We need to make sure we’re getting enough food, and appropriate nutrition. And nothing replaces getting enough sleep. If your game play is throwing these other factors out of balance, it’s time to pull back a bit. Also, it’s wise to pay attention to why you’re playing; if you find yourself playing a game just to fill time, it might be worth spending some time thinking about how else you could use your time.

If games are something you’re already into, or something you’re willing to try, great! Even if you don’t have a console to play on, there are plenty of games that will work on your computer or phone, and a lot that are free. Check them out, and see what you think. Flattening the curve is a marathon rather than a sprint, and if we’re going to get through it we’ll need to get inventive in how we take care of ourselves.

Drew Zaitsoff, Purdue CAPS Staff Therapist