On June 15th, 2018, I flew home from Los Angeles after spending a whirlwind six days at my first E3. I arrived that afternoon back in Kansas City, was overjoyed to hug my wife at the airport, and upon getting home I immediately gave both of my sons a hug as well. We chatted for a little while and I settled back in prior to dinner. After the four of us ate dinner together, we put on a movie and my older son, 17 years old and recently driving, said he was going to go out with some friends, as he did most weekends. It was the last time we would ever speak to him whilst alive.
My son was murdered on June 16, 2018, shortly after midnight. While I consider myself proficient at writing, it is impossible to convey the feelings felt not only that evening, but on a daily basis since. It is a feeling unlike any other and I would never wish it upon any parent. It is also something neither my wife nor I generally care to speak about. The simple greeting that we are all met with multiple times daily, “How are you doing?”, has been forever tarnished. However, I have a reason for sharing this with you today.
I have been gaming since 1982 when I was 4 years old. I began playing on the Atari 2600 and Colecovision, played the NES endlessly with friends, owned a Sega Master System at 8 years old, and during the 35+ years since have owned, collected, played, and competed in more games than I can count. Over that time I have been involved with gaming groups of all sorts, met thousands of people from all walks of life, and made lifelong friends. I have also witnessed the power of gaming to foster community, eliminate societal boundaries, and empower those who have too often felt powerless.
You see, video games have regularly been the punching bag for an uninformed percentage of the community in search of a scapegoat. When you’ve been a fan of this industry for as long as I have you’ve witnessed this many times over. From the NES causing arthritis to becoming overly violent due to Mortal Kombat or Grand Theft Auto, we’ve seen it for decades. Most recently the World Health Organization declared “Gaming Disorder” as a diagnosable condition. While we should obviously be concerned with any addiction signs across all mediums, video games are often gravely misunderstood. But these stigmas are real and, whether you realize it or not, they are impactful; often in negative ways.
As a gaming community we can and do debate these topics on a daily basis. But we often spend so much time and effort simply attesting that gaming doesn’t have a negative impact that we often overlook the positive impact that it has. I’m not simply referring to the well documented mental acuity and hand-eye coordination improvements (though those are certainly welcome). Rather, throughout my years in the community, I’ve known people suffering from a wide range of mental health issues, people with physical disabilities, and people simply going through a tough period in their life. In each case, from minor to extreme, I’ve seen how gaming and our community can help. It’s something I feel we should discuss far more often. So let’s do just that, beginning with mental health; a subject we seem to hear more about on a daily basis.
Gaming for Mental Health
Mental health issues and neurological disorders, according to the WHO, affect 25% of people at some point in their lives. Currently, an estimated 450 million people suffer from mental health issues, which places them among the leading causes of disability and/or ill-health worldwide. It’s only natural, then, that a good percentage of gamers suffer from the same issues. Fortunately gaming has been shown to help in a positive way across many areas that are known to be pain points.
In a study cited by Peter Gray Ph.D. and written for Psychology Today, it is found that children who play games regularly not only see cognitive and creativity improvements, but also emotional benefits in that they are better prepared to deal with stress, anger, and fear due to what they have subjected themselves to in the games they’ve played. This can have long-lasting positive impacts on their lives, with associated studies showing these children are often more successful in college and their career(s) in the long-term.
Furthermore, people of all ages impacted by depression, a very large and growing group of individuals, can also find relief with gaming. In an article by Isabela Granic, Professor for the Behavioural Science Institute in the Netherlands, she demonstrates six ways in which video games can often help mental health. One particular aspect which I found enlightening is mere accessibility for children:
Approximately 80% of youths who need mental health care receive no services. Those most in need of care have a difficult time accessing programs because of geographical or life-style factors. Cost is also a major barrier to access for a large subpopulation. It goes without saying that the cost of a video game is invariably less than a series of therapy sessions in a mental health clinic or the cost of launching and maintaining such a program in a school system. Games are also easily accessible, online or through stores, and can be used by children, youth and families when they want, in their homes or on their mobile devices.
Gaming for the Community
Likely, my favorite aspect about gaming is that it is the great equalizer. While society continues to evolve and progress, it sadly still produces bigots, racists, sexists, and many other forms of discrimination. While I certainly won’t claim that video games are the answer to these timeless issues, they do bring people together who may not have otherwise had a common thread. Over the course of my many years in gaming communities, there has always been a common factor: it was always about the games, solely. It didn’t matter what you looked like, where you were from, or what job you held. All that mattered was your love for the game(s). From LAN parties, to arcades, conventions, and tournaments, this always rang true, and in my opinion it still does today. All it takes is one trip to a comic-con or gaming competition to see the melting pot of cultures and the communal nature of the attendees.
Expanding upon that thought, online multiplayer brings together hundreds of millions of people in today’s industry. While some may argue that it has a tendency to bring out the worst in a percentage of players, which I would agree with, I’d counter by calling that a shallow assessment. In reality, what it has done, on a broader scale than ever before, is bring people from all corners of society together. At any point playing Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, Fortnite, or any of the thousands of online titles, you are likely playing with a human being that you otherwise wouldn’t have associated with outside of gaming. I believe that’s an underappreciated aspect of the industry and should be applauded. Common interests have always brought people together, but the scale to which gaming has accomplished it is remarkable. And, thanks to new and expanding efforts around accessibility, the impact will only continue to grow.
Gaming is just as much a love and passion for certain people as it is to others, but due to physical conditions beyond their control they are inhibited from enjoying games in the traditional methods. Thankfully, there’s a growing focus on accessibility for gamers impacted by such conditions. Charities such as Able Gamers and Special Effect are dedicated to providing ways for gamers with disabilities to enjoy the games we all know and love. Even a company as large as Microsoft recognizes the need for increased accessibility, which it demonstrated in 2018 by introducing the Xbox Adaptive Controller. The Adaptive Controller was engineered specifically to integrate with a wide range of input devices, thus opening the door for gamers with disabilities to enjoy their favorite titles; sometimes for the first time ever. The device was recognized for Outstanding Achievement at the Golden Joystick Awards and has been applauded industry-wide.
Gaming for Charity
I’ve mentioned the “gaming community” several times now. I’ve done so for reasons that may seem obvious to those within it, but may be more difficult to understand for those on the outside. Let me attempt to explain.
Gamers, as I noted earlier, have faced a plethora of stigmas over the years. As with most groups that share a common interest that is a niche in society, an “us vs. them” mentality begins to manifest. When it comes to people who enjoy video games, particularly adults, there has always been a fondness for others who have shared an interest in the hobby. While gaming has grown and has been popularized immensely in the past two decades, this culture within the gaming community persists. This is notable due to what culminates from it, which is an inherent focus on caring for one another and helping others in need.
Exact figures are difficult to nail down, but one thing is for certain: gamers are raising a substantial amount of money for charitable causes annually. There are so many organizations and companies doing good work here that I wouldn’t want to leave any out by mentioning specific ones, but they have combined to have an enormous impact on people in need across the globe. Not only do gamers generate a substantial amount of charitable revenue through streaming, but many of the companies were founded by gamers themselves. When looked at holistically, one estimate shows over $46 million being generated for charities in 2018. For perspective, Major League Baseball donated an average of $44 million annually to charities between 2010 and 2012. Keep in mind, this is an area within gaming that continues to see year over year growth as well.
Gaming to Escape
In addition to assisting people who struggle with defined disabilities and medical issues, video games can help people cope in their day to day lives, which is the reason I decided to write this article. At the end of the day, we are all human, and as such deal with a wide range of emotions. Disappointment, heartbreak, anger, sadness, and many more emotional experiences impact each and every one of us at different points in our lives. We are often in search of an escape; something that will help us take our minds off of the negative influences in our lives. Video games are just that for a wide range of people and, compared to some other avenues of escapism, can often be less expensive and/or dangerous.
Immediately after the loss of my son, I found myself with zero motivation. As someone who is typically moving every minute of every day, something I’ve done for years, it was an odd feeling to say the least. Slowly, as I worked back into some sort of daily routine, I began playing games again. But this time I recognized a different aspect of enjoyment while doing so. As someone who adores playing multiplayer titles with friends, it became an outlet for me. It was always a way to stay in touch with friends while having a laugh. But it now constitutes more. It’s a way for me to find enjoyment, even for a short period, without qualification. To me, and to the millions of gamers who share similar feelings due to obstacles they’ve encountered in their lives, it is a priceless quality of video games.
When compared with other entertainment mediums, video games have grown to surpass escapism in the form of self-identification as well. While many of us grew up admiring specific films or books while living vicariously through the characters we watched and read, we’re at a moment in gaming where we can create and control those characters. And we can often do so with other people around the world, should we choose. No matter who you are, where you are from, or any issues or conditions from which you suffer, you can create and be the character you’ve always wanted to be without restriction. And what’s most promising is the fact that this capability is in its relative infancy. It’s sure to evolve and improve in the coming years to heights few of us can likely imagine.
If it wasn’t clear by now, I love video games and what they are capable of. I have from the moment I first played the Atari 2600 and I will until the end. More people every year discover this medium and, though it already feels as though gaming is everywhere, I truly feel it’s only just begun. Video games have the capability to transcend age, race, sex, religion, location, and class. They can be enjoyed anywhere, at nearly any time, and present unique experiences other mediums cannot.
The ability of video games to transcend so many limitations is remarkable and I believe the extraordinary efforts around inclusion should be celebrated. Our community is at its best when we are looking out for one another and we each have the capability to positively impact others within it. So the next time you hear someone speaking of the dangers of video games, please educate them.
Here are a few references in case you’d like to learn more regarding the links between mental health and gaming, as well as gaming accessibility.
You can find an excellent summary of studies on the link between gaming and mental well-being here.
You can find a Cornell study on the Characteristics and Motivations of Players with Disabilities in Digital Games here.
Additionally, the Gaming Accessibility Conference is March 18th in San Francisco. Its sponsors include Microsoft, Ubisoft, and the ESA. You can find all related information here.
Finally, 2018 was my first year playing for Extra Life and it was an absolute pleasure. My goal was $1,000 on the year and I had a great start with the PUBG event early in the year raising over $500. Sadly, I only played once in the second half of the year. Still, I totaled $736 and plan on playing more often in 2019. If you stream and/or enjoy helping charitable causes, I highly recommend it. My profile: Porshapwr on Extra Life.