Roman Semiokhin: Can Gaming Play a Positive Role in Mental Health?

As the gaming industry has grown, so too has discussion around the negative health benefits it may pose. Gaming and gambling are commonly associated with mental health issues, unhealthy behaviours and poor coping mechanisms, from sleep deprivation and aggression to anxiety and depression. In 2019, the World Health Organisation officially recognised ‘gaming disorder’ as an addictive behaviour and classified gaming addiction as a disease.

Excessive gaming can certainly be harmful, and in extreme cases it may be damaging to players’ communication skills, cause an inability to regulate and control emotions, and even encourage violence. However, there are many misconceptions about the impact of gaming on mental health. In reality gaming has many benefits, and research points to mental health being positively affected by the activity.

Professor Andy Przybylski, Director of Research at the Oxford Internet Institute, recently conducted a formal scientific study into how gaming affects players. The study found that video games have the potential to improve mental health and make players happier, and that playing video games positively correlates with well-being. The paper also suggested that there was a need to find out if the ‘moral panic’ around gaming was unsubstantiated. Meanwhile, Microsoft conducted research within the Xbox Research Accessibility Community Feedback Program that found 84% of respondents agreeing that gaming had positively impacted their mental health over the past year.

There are a number of reasons why this is the case. First, gaming is a very popular form of entertainment that provides a means of escapism. It is an engaging and enjoyable pastime for around three billion people worldwide, and – given it offers a more immersive experience than books, television or social media – it can be a healthy outlet for stress relief. Dr Raffael Boccamazzo, Clinical Director of Take This, a non-profit mental health organisation with a focus on the gaming community, notes that when people are feeling upset or annoyed, they typically turn to fun activities to regulate their emotions. Therefore, the fact that a gamer has mental health issues does not mean that they have those issues because of gaming.

Gaming can encourage healthy brain stimulation, as it engages almost every part of the mind.  Players must analyse, strategise and solve problems whilst gaming, often under time pressure, which helps them to develop critical thinking skills, improve their information processing and visual perception, and enhance their ability to switch between tasks. In doing so, gaming can better equip players to deal with real-world challenges and difficulties. For example, a scientific review published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience indicated that the parts of the brain that are responsible for attention are more efficient in gamers than non-gamers, and gaming increases the size and competence of the regions linked to visuospatial skills.

In addition, gaming can be an effective way for people to combat loneliness and make friends. Microsoft’s study found that 71% of players believe gaming has helped them feel less isolated. It is very possible to form meaningful connections through technology, and online multiplayer games can also help people communicate at their own pace, which is particularly important for those who experience anxiety in real-life social situations.

Gaming entrepreneur and philanthropist Roman Semiokhin wants the gaming and gambling industries to be an inclusive and supportive environment for people with mental health struggles. There are several unfounded stereotypes around the impact of gaming on mental health, and Semiokhin hopes that more people will come to realise the mental health benefits that gaming can bring. As part of his philanthropic efforts, he has also unveiled plans to establish a medical clinic to support those with health difficulties.

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