Here we are, again, in another lockdown. Despite all of the scepticism, rhetoric and frustration, we still know that the best thing that we can all do to curb the spread of COVID-19 is to stay at home and minimise our physical contact with other people. For an inherently social species though, this is not an easy thing to do. We crave connection.
As we all came to realise in Lockdown 1.0 though, modern life brings with it an amazing arsenal of digital tools to stave off boredom, connect with friends and family, let off steam, and get lost in other worlds.
As a psychologist interested in the behavioural and wellbeing effects of playing video games, one of the most heartening things that I’ve seen over the past year is the shift in attitudes, however slight, towards our relationship with digital technology.
For years, it felt as though there was a real battle to successfully communicate the nuanced and complex effects that games can have – while the science is very much mixed when it comes to their impact on us, the public debate often boiled down to an all-or-nothing dichotomy. Either games were turning us into mindless, violent zombies, or they could offer us myriad unrivalled benefits in terms of ‘brain training’.
But as we’ve come to know them on a much more personal level – working from home, especially with young families in tow, has meant that we’ve had to navigate conversations about how best to use our days in effective quarantine – it seems as though we’ve gained a more mature appreciation of video games that is much more in line with scientific understanding.
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Let me give you an example. A significant chunk of the last three decades of research on video games has focused on the question of whether so-called violent video games make us more aggressive and antisocial.
Where, in the early days, studies suggested that there was indeed a link, as research programmes evolved and developed more appropriate approaches to understanding the topic, the consensus view that has started to develop is that while there may be some associations between playing violent games and aggression, they’re fairly weak, and nothing to worry about.
Our misunderstanding of these effects was fuelled in part by a persistent yet simplistic media narrative that pushed the notion that games like Call of Duty or World of Warcraft had a role to play in driving some individuals to commit horrendous acts of violence: in nearly every major US school shooting in the first two decades of the 2000s, it was claimed that the perpetrators not only played such games, but it was because they played such games that they were driven to mass murder.
To date, there has been no convincing scientific evidence that supports this view. And as we’ve perhaps come to realise, after a year of getting closer to video games ourselves, to claim that a single video game can be the cause of such an extreme event is to misunderstand the nature of video games themselves.
Fortnite is a classic example of this: at face value, it’s a fairly bleak game where 100 players fight it out in a battle royale until only one is left alive. But another view of it is as an unusual social media network – a place where friends can come together with a common interest, catch up and play to relax and unwind.
Categorising games like this under a broad banner as ‘violent’ doesn’t really capture the manifold ways in which they can be used to connect with each other.
Underlying our fears and wariness of video games is the sense that for too long, they’ve been viewed, subconsciously or otherwise, as ‘junk’ entertainment: like the digital equivalent of hamburgers and fries, they’re alright as treats in very small doses, but too much is a bad thing for our health.
The past year has started to show them in a different light though. Far from being a meaningless waste of time, or lower form of entertainment, games, as we have come to realise, offer us an unparalleled creative experience. They allow us to forge new worlds and new friendships, explore complex concepts like loss, sorrow and love, and get lost travelling in far-off lands – all from the comfort and safety of our own homes.
Despite everything we’ve been through, for many there’s still a lingering sentiment that playing video games is a guilty pleasure – especially so if you’re a grown up. But play is one of the most fundamentally important activities that we can take part in.
It’s not just the preserve of childhood, and as we continue to live life in lockdown, finding new ways to play – and not feeling guilty about them – is one of the best things that we can do to nurture our own wellbeing.
About Dr Pete Etchells
Dr Pete Etchells is a professor of psychology with a particular interest how video games affect our mood and behaviour.
Pete is also the author of the book Lost in a Good Game (£14.99, Icon Books) which explores why we love video games, and what they do for us.
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