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Gaming and wellbeing

This article is written by Mikko Meriläinen, Postdoctoral Researcher in game education at Tampere University.

Digital gaming is a regular part of life for many children and young people, so it is worth paying attention to the intersections between gaming and wellbeing. Gaming has a huge potential to impact wellbeing – this impact is mainly positive, but the risks should not be ignored. This article looks at two important themes related to gaming and wellbeing: relaxation and social interaction.

Various games offer a wide range of experiences, whether it be spending time with friends or relaxing in peace while becoming absorbed in the story of the game. The impact of gaming largely depends on the person: both people and game experiences are different and vary depending on, for instance, the circumstances in life or even the day (Kallio, Mäyrä & Kaipainen 2009).

When people talk about the escapism of games, the tone is often concerned. However, the majority of gaming involves a fairly positive escape from reality: games act as a counterbalance to the stress caused for example by school, work or everyday life, and help people relax. Games allow you to take some time for yourself and offer you freedom, which can be particularly useful for children and young people whose life is controlled in many ways. People can also start gaming more when they are going through a difficult time in life and want to reduce the strain of other things in life by gaming (Meriläinen 2020).

Although gaming is a good way to relieve stress, it is worth keeping in mind that it should not be the only answer to your problems in life. For example, depression or anxiety can lead to excessive gaming, which affects the quality and quantity of sleep, among other things. This can create a vicious circle where gaming makes you feel both better and worse. If gaming is a natural part of everyday conversation at home, it will also be easier to talk about any changes in gaming habits. Signs can include

  1. sudden increase in gaming for no apparent reason (such as getting a new game)
  2. gaming sessions that continue later into the evenings or nights than before
  3. the child or young person reacts more strongly towards gaming limits than before.

The solutions to these situations depend on the family and the individuals. In some cases, it is necessary to limit gaming for the sake of wellbeing, while in others it helps to stretch the boundaries. It is particularly important to find out if the child’s increased gaming is linked to other concerns or distress and to address these underlying causes.

Gaming is social in many ways. In addition to playing games with others, such as friends and family members, children also talk about games both face to face and online. Various communities form around games, streams and YouTube channels, and games provide a setting for meeting new people and strengthening existing relationships (Meriläinen 2020).

Interaction with other people is a big part of the appeal of gaming – and also significant for gaming and wellbeing. Friendships established and maintained while gaming can be particularly important if meeting people face to face is hard, for example due to shyness or a fear of social situations (Kowert, Domahidi & Quandt 2014), or because leaving the house is difficult due to a physical impairment, for instance. Relationships maintained online should not be pit against face-to-face relationships, but parents can support the online relationships of their child or young person by valuing them and by talking about them just as they would any other relationship.

The unfortunate risk of online games is that you can also come across inappropriate content. For example, racist, sexist and homo- or transphobic comments are still fairly common, and particularly minority and young gamers can feel overwhelmed by them (Alin 2018). It is important that if a child comes across name-calling or, for example, sexual harassment in games, they can talk to a reliable adult about it. This in turn requires an environment at home where games can and may be talked about. Children and young people can also feel overwhelmed by their parent’s constant critical attitude or downright guilt-tripping. You can also ask about the gaming behaviour of the child or young person or their group of friends: many can engage in inappropriate behaviour themselves simply out of thoughtlessness or peer pressure.

In an ideal situation, the gaming of a child or young person is a normal thing at home that improves wellbeing and helps them cope with stress. The effects of gaming on wellbeing largely depend on how well gaming is in balance with the rest of life: is gaming a natural, easy part of everyday life or does it regularly cause harm or problems? A balanced everyday life benefits the gamer: many of the positive aspects of gaming can also disappear if controlling it is hard and gaming does not feel as enjoyable as it did before.


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