Quizzing the effect of gaming on wellbeing

Whether it’s a politician declaring them to be responsible for encouraging violence or a news station claiming they’re going to result in the downfall of our children, a lot of negativity has been thrown at video games and the people who play them.

It feels like things are changing though. More people are beginning to realise that gaming can help improve our mental health and every gamer has a personal story about how a certain title helped them through a tough time. Video games are gradually being seen as something of worth rather than the ‘mindless entertainment’ view frequently held by those who don’t play, and spending your weekend playing the latest release can be just as worthwhile as watching a movie or reading a book.

Every now and again though, something happens to make you question just how quickly opinions are shifting. Here’s a recent anecdote for you. To make sure all staff are aware of the importance of the Data Protection Act (and that the company doesn’t get hit with large fines and reputational damage), my employer recently signed us all up for ‘an exciting learning programme’. It means everyone must complete a ‘monthly bite-sized learning module’ – basically, ten minutes of slides followed by a short quiz every few weeks.

The first of these arrived earlier this month. Covering the subject of ‘home working’, it featured sections on how to protect your personal network along with maintaining your well-being and productivity while working away from the office. One of the questions in the test at the end of the session was: ‘Which of the following is a great way to boost your mood with endorphins and maintain physical wellbeing?’ And the multiple-choice answers provided were working extra hours, exercise, online gaming and caffeine.

Yes, you read that right: online gaming was given as one of the options which were clearly supposed to be negative. After having to sit through several slides telling me that exercise is good and I should keep it up even while I’m working from home (no shit), that I should avoid caffeine and drink plenty of water (no shit again), and that I should avoid making my work hours bleed over into my personal time (one final no shit), the fact that the author had decided to choose gaming as a bad response really got my back up.

To be fair to my employer, they’ve tried to do a lot for their employees’ mental health during the lockdown. Over the past year we’ve had access to regular webinars on numerous wellbeing subjects, personal coaching sessions and meetings with counsellors. The favourite among staff has been the introduction of a two-hour ‘protected time’ period once a week, where we’re allowed to turn off our laptops and do an activity we enjoy without interruption from colleagues or meetings.

We’re supposed to do something ‘for ourselves’ during these extended breaks. For example, a colleague on my team goes to the gym or for a swim, while another takes a long walk through the woods close to their house. Someone else has been able to study for and pass their technical exams, and I’ve heard of other teams getting together online to watch box-sets and films. But if I were to admit to using my protected time to play a video game: should I now assume that my employer would view this negatively?

They obviously haven’t heard about any of the recent reports which highlight the positive effects of gaming. For instance, a study completed by the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford last year revealed a positive relation between gameplay and affective wellbeing. What made this so important was that it was one of the first to be conducted using data provided by publishers rather than relying upon participants to estimate how much time they spent playing, giving credence to the claim that video games can be good for our mental health.

And there’s also the experiment completed by a small international team using MMORPG ArcheAge in 2017. When confronted with an apocalypse scenario, players acted more nicely to each other and banded together to work as a team rather than focusing as much on their individual successes. The researchers found that instead of wreaking havoc, most chose to spend their time hanging out with fellow virtual comrades and being social over character advancement and progression.

What has the past year been if not our very own apocalypse scenario? It has highlighted the benefits of gaming with more people taking up the hobby since the first lockdown in March 2020. For some, it was a way to fill the free hours brought on by being furloughed from work. For others, video games provided a means to escape from everything going on in the real world when they needed a break. And for a lot of us, playing online with friends and family meant we were still able to spend time with those closest to us.

I’m not sure how well I’d have coped with the past 12 months if I hadn’t had gaming as a source of entertainment, social connection and stress relief. Hanging out in various Twitch chats with other bloggers gave me the chance to get to know them better, so much so that we’ve now become friends outside of streaming and blogging. Playing games with them online and being able to talk about what’s happening in our part of the world has made all the rough days a little bit brighter.

Perhaps I’m biased as a gamer but I do think it’s unfair of my employer to lump ‘online gaming’ into the same negative bracket as ‘working long hours’ and ‘caffeine’. Too much of it can obviously be a bad thing and staying active is important for your physical wellbeing – but picking up the controller for an hour or so does wonders for your mood. When used in a positive way, video games can be a great tool for helping to manage your mental health and boosting your happiness.

The person who wrote the questions for that quiz should give them a try. Now there’s a suggestion for their next session of protected time.

Time to Talk Day 2021: opening up

Although 2020 was a very strange year, it offered some silver-linings. One of these was an increase in the understanding of just how important our mental health is and the willingness to have more open conversations about the subject.

This is positive progress but there’s still a lot of work to be done. One in four individuals will be affected by an issue this year alone and it’s incredibly sad to hear that over a half of them will say the associated isolation and shame is worth than the condition itself. The social stigma attached to mental health and the discrimination experienced because of it can make the problem worse and recovery that much harder – but there are things we can all do to change this.

Time to Talk Day, an annual event hosted by growing social movement called Time to Change, gives everyone a chance to tackle this silence and shame. Having open conversations about how we’re feeling can help break down stereotypes, improve relationships, aid recovery, and take the stigma out of something which will affect each of us at some point during our lives. Nobody should have to fear being treated differently because of a mental health problem.

You can get involved by joining the virtual festival being held on YouTube, starting at 19:00 GMT this evening with a discussion about the power of talking and continuing tomorrow with a short series of webinars (see the schedule here). You can also check the Time to Change website for details on events taking place both online and around the UK, along with resources if you’re interested in planning your own activity.

Perhaps the most important thing you can do though is let people know you’re there to listen if they need someone to support them. There’s no right way to talk about mental health but these tips will guide you in approaching it in a helpful way. My channels are open to anyone who’d like to chat – whether you want to talk amore about this post or would just like to speak to somebody who isn’t going to judge. I can’t say I’ll know how to fix what you’re going through but I can certainly be there for you.

If you’re worried about someone in your life and haven’t heard from them in a while: please don’t hesitate in reaching to them. Send them a private message and ask how they’re doing so they know you’re thinking of them and have your support. We all need somebody to look out for us every once in a while and if your friend is going through a tough time, stepping in and showing them you care could mean more to them than you realise.

Together we’re stronger and can end mental health discrimination.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)

The curious case of the Xbox Series X

This has possibly been the weirdest Christmas ever. Here in the south-east of the UK, we were moved into tier 4 lockdown restrictions with only five days’ notice and this meant we were no longer allowed to see family and friends during the festive period.

There was a range of emotion as my other-half and I listened to the announcement. On one hand we were pleased that action was being taken to keep everyone safe; but on the other, we weren’t looking forward to dealing with the reaction of certain difficult family-members when we told them we were no longer coming to visit. And then there was the fact we’d have to tell my stepson Ethan that we now wouldn’t be able to see him at Christmas – the first time we’d been allowed to have him on the day for five years.

The small relief was that Pete and I had taken the decision to give him his present the night before. We knew Ethan wouldn’t get much time to use it the following weekend as we were due to spend Christmas and Boxing Day with family, so it had seemed fair to let him have it early. Although we now wouldn’t be able to have him stay with us for a few weeks thanks to the increased risk of COVID-19, at least he’d be able to get some enjoyment from his gift before we had to say goodbye.

You see, my stepson had been hinting that he wanted an Xbox Series X since the reveal of the consoles last summer. We told him that we’d give him money for Christmas to put towards the console but he’d need to take on the responsibility of saving up the rest himself. After keeping his birthday and pocket-money safe for six months, he talked about nothing else during the lead-up to the holidays and constantly nagged us for updates on whether we’d been able to get one whenever he heard news about limited stock.

We’d sat Ethan down after dinner on the evening before the tier 4 announcement and explained he could choose to have his gift early – but he needed to be aware that the offer came with several caveats. First, he must give us his payment towards the cost of the console before the end of the weekend. Second, he would need to spend ‘proper’ time with family-members over Christmas instead of talking at them constantly about his Xbox or whichever game he was playing (something he’s very prone to doing).

Finally, a new three-strike rule would be imposed regarding noise. He’d gradually been getting louder while playing online with friends in recent weeks and we found ourselves going up to his room to tell him to keep it down more frequently. If this happened too many times, the console would now be taken away for the rest of the day. (We were aware Ethan would agree to anything just to get his hands on the Xbox and had one of the most peaceful nights we’d had in ages.)

My stepson’s eyes lit up the moment the box was placed down on the table. The look on his face was one of genuine amazement: he couldn’t believe we’d managed to get our hands on a console and it was sitting there right in front of him. We had to urge him to actually touch it after he sat staring at it for a few minutes, and he snatched his hand away quickly because he was so nervous. He couldn’t even bring himself to open the box and eventually Pete had to do it for him.

Ethan spent that weekend playing the same games he would have done if he were still using his Xbox One and saw no major graphical improvements thanks to his old television. I struggled to wrap my brain around the extent of his excitement; I can’t bring myself to see the new consoles as anything other than just another piece of hardware nowadays and, if my current hardware can still run the titles I want to play, then owning the latest equipment doesn’t bother me in the slightest.

I understand my stepkid’s enthusiasm if there were more new releases for the Xbox Series and PlayStation 5, but currently most of them are either available on the older consoles too or are just remakes and remasters of existing games. The only upcoming titles Ethan has asked about were ones we told him he was too young to play. Personally, it’s only Horizon Forbidden West and Fable IV which have caught my attention so far – but with no release dates announced yet, who knows when we’ll get the chance to experience them.

Watching the kid’s reaction to his Christmas present that evening made me realise that I’ve not been excited about anything gaming-wise for a long time. This isn’t just to do with the lack of new titles, delays to games I was looking forward to or the now-common unrealistic level of hype. 2020 has been a tough year for everybody and we’re still feeling its effects going into 2021; months of lockdown and fear have brought on a lack of motivation and enthusiasm, and sometimes it takes all your effort just to stay on an even emotional keel.

I want to be that eager again though. To look forward to trying the bargains I managed to pick up during the latest Steam sale, to find a game I’m totally hooked on, to experience a story I can’t stop thinking about long after I’ve completed it. Perhaps finding Yakuza 0 after becoming curious about it during a stream last month by Nathan of Gaming Omnivore is the start; I’ve already completed over 25 hours at the time of writing and I’m having a lot of fun mashing buttons around the streets of Kamurocho so far.

I guess the only thing we can do is try to be more like my stepson was that night, to look for the joy in small events and then use those feelings to push us forward to more positive times. It’s difficult and we’re all struggling, but we will get there. I wish you all the best for 2021 and hope you find some brightness in the coming months.

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)

Out of the dumpster fire: games and well-being

I noticed a few similar headlines appearing in my news feed one day towards the end of November. A new report had apparently found a surprising discovery: time spent playing video games is positively associated with wellbeing.

I scrolled past at first and wasn’t going to give them a second glance. Gaming bloggers have become so used to seeing newspapers publish articles about studies like this, where the author disputes the findings and then questions the value of gaming. But one title ended up catching my eye because it mentioned the way the data had been collected for this latest report from Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, entitled Video game play is positively correlated with well-being.

Previous studies have relied upon asking participants to estimate how much time they spend playing and this can obviously be unreliable. For the latest research however, industry data on actual play time was provided by Nintendo and Electronic Arts (EA) for Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Plants vs. Zombies: Battle for Neighborville respectively. The companies then reached out to regular players to invite them to take part, and participants responded to a survey from the university.

I had the chance to see a session given by Professor Pete Etchells on the psychology of gaming addiction at the Rezzed event last year and remember him talking about data. Scientists are always playing catch-up because they don’t have any information on trends around what the nation is playing; and while the information held by publishers would be invaluable to researchers, they often don’t want to provide it in case the resulting investigations indicate that gaming is bad for us.

Perhaps times are changing then. The fact that big organisations like Nintendo and EA have willingly helped with the Oxford Internet Institute’s study could finally indicate acknowledgement of a need to understand more about our interactions with video games, and encourage other companies to be more open to providing useful data too. The findings here are valuable, not because of what they’ve shown in connection with well-being but because of the method used to arrive at their conclusion.

You see, it’s not really much of a surprise that video games can help improve our mental health. This is something we as gamers have been shouting about for years and we’ve all got our own story of how they’ve helped us through a tough time. We see them as something of worth rather than the ‘mindless entertainment’ view usually held by newspapers and non-gamers, and know that spending your weekend playing the latest release is just as worthwhile as watching a movie or reading a book.

The COVID-19 lockdown has highlighted the benefits of gaming with more people taking up the hobby since March. For some, it has been a way to fill the free hours brought on by being furloughed from work. For others, video games have provided a means to escape from everything going on in the world when a break is needed. And for a lot of us, playing online with friends and family has meant we’ve been able to feel as though they’re still spending time with those closest to us.

I asked my blogger-friends to tell me about their own experiences. Luke from Hundstrasse said that replaying two games he’d completed previously was comforting during the lockdown. Pix1001 from Shoot the Rookie said that although she felt her habits hadn’t changed, gaming has given her a certain sense of normalcy over the past several months. And Athena from AmbiGaming mentioned that watching streams has made her feel as though she’s playing with friends.

These aren’t the sort of stories frequently reported by the media though because they don’t bring in the clicks. Newspapers are usually more content to focus their content on loot boxes, and how they’re a form of gambling which is going to corrupt our children. Unscrupulous publishers who make money from unsuspecting parents when their unchecked kids make in-game purchases. And horrible games which contain too much violence and are surely going to lead to acts of aggression in real life.

But video games aren’t always the cause – playing could be more a symptom, and an interesting example was given by Professor Etchells during his talk. If your guardians had a more ‘relaxed’ parenting style, you may have been given access to titles that contained more violence as a child; but if you become aggressive later in life, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s those games that were the origin of that behaviour. It could instead have something to do with the way you were brought up.

This is something also picked up on in the latest study too. Director of Research and lead-author Professor Andrew Przybylski said of his team’s report: “Our findings show video games aren’t necessarily bad for your health; there are other psychological factors which have a significant effect on a persons’ well-being. In fact, play can be an activity that relates positively to people’s mental health – and regulating video games could withhold those benefits from players.”

To quote Professor Etchells’ talk: “I think video games do have an effect on us. Everything has an effect on us… but by focusing on video games, are we missing more important factors?”. The problem is the lack of available data, something mentioned by Professor Przybylski in his interview with The Guardian. He added: “You have really respected, important bodies, like the WHO and the NHS, allocating attention and resources to something that there’s literally no good data on… For them to turn around and be like, ‘Hey, this thing that 95% of teenagers do? Yeah, that’s addictive, no, we don’t have any data’ – that makes no sense.”

Maybe this latest study will change things and more companies like Nintendo and EA will be willing to share information for the benefit of further research. Perhaps then more news outlets will then start reporting on the positivity of video games and the findings of reports based on valuable data. As Professor Przybylski said: “This is about bringing games into the fold of psychology research that’s not a dumpster fire. This lets us explain and understand games as a leisure activity.”

We’re taking part in GameBlast21 to support SpecialEffect, the gamers’ charity.
Making a donation will bring you great loot, increase your XP by +100 and make you immune to fire.*
(*Not guaranteed.)

World Kindness Day 2020: intentional acts

2020 has been a rollercoaster. The first couple of months were normal enough but life has been strange since the UK was placed on lockdown in March due to the threat of COVID-19. We’re all trying to stay positive but sadly, there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight right now.

Some days are better than others for me personally. It can be nice staying at home, knowing that my family is safe and having extra free hours to spend on video games and finding new hobbies; but sometimes I feel like I’m climbing the walls and just need to get out of the house. Spending so much of my time in front of my laptop for both work and socialising tends to leave me digitally drained and there are some evenings where I can’t bear to pick up the controller.

I think this is normal though and similar feelings are likely to be hitting a lot of people. Humans are wired to focus on the negatives affecting them so, even if something good happens during the day, we almost immediately go back to our previous state. But what if we started paying more attention when those positive things appear? And what if we took it a step further, by making a point of trying to create those moments that put a smile on someone else’s face or make their afternoon a bit brighter?

make kindness the norm, World Kindness Day

This is what World Kindness Day is about today: to stop seeing them as random and begin thinking of them as intentional acts of kindness. We’re all encouraged to look for ways to make kindness the norm in our daily lives and take some time to recognise when those positive moments are happening. Even something small – sending an uplifting text message, paying someone a compliment, letting a driver out in front of you with a smile – can make a big change to how we’re feeling.

Is there a blogger who has done something amazing, written a post worth shouting about, been there for you when you needed an ear to listen or is just an all-round awesome person? Then we want to hear about them in the comments below. Take a minute to explain why you think they’re great and shout about their work. There are so many talented people and wonderful friendships here, and it’s the perfect day to celebrate them.

Kindness starts with one little act and if there are enough of them, then there are definitely brighter days ahead.

Eel-ing better: fishing in ESO

I’ve had an on-off addiction to The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) since first trying it during the Christmas holidays in 2015. I’ll go through periods where I’ll play it at every possible moment at the expense of other games, then I won’t touch it for several months.

The last time I properly played was at the start of this year during our streams for GameBlast20. Finding video games to play every evening for 50 days proved to be rather difficult but ESO was our saviour: not only was it easy to dip back into it with the absence of a steep learning curve, we were able to regularly hook up with a few friends who were playing at the same time. You’d often find me joining my other-half, Phil, and Tim and Jake from Timlah’s Texts & Unity3D Tech for a dungeon or two in the evenings.

It wasn’t all just fighting long-dead draugers and killing giant spiders though. Sometimes we’d leave the dungeons behind and do something completely different instead. For example, there was an entire session spent in what was essentially an ESO-version of MTV Cribs: after Tim and Jake showed us around their sprawling mansion and we’d transformed ourselves into monkeys using their Fan of the False-Face, they guided Pete on a tour through the various abodes available to players and then helped him decorate once he’d chosen a home.

After our 50-day challenge for GameBlast20 had been completed in February, we put down our controllers and that was it for ESO. Pete had achieved what he’d set out to do and had finally levelled up a character enough to become a Champion; and I was eager to return to my beloved adventure genre, having not played many point-and-clicks over the past two months because they weren’t particularly great for streaming. Although the game was left installed on our laptops, we signed out and didn’t go back to it.

That was until earlier this month. As I wrote at the end of July, lockdown gaming was turning my hobby into a task that felt more like work and it was starting to feel like something I did more to just pass the time than enjoy. Add to this the fact that most of the upcoming releases I’d been looking forward to had been delayed thanks to COVID-19 and there was nothing I was absolutely itching to play; I was just going through the motions, because what sort of video game blogger doesn’t play video games?

A couple of weeks ago, Athena from AmbiGaming published a great post with the title Old Friends and New Adventures: COVID-19 and Comfort Gaming which talked about nostalgia and the exposure effect. She said: “We take comfort in the familiar. Our brains process a familiar event and recognise it as something that it has survived, and therefore it is not something that poses a mortal danger to us, compared to this Unknown Thing that, despite appearances, might not be as satisfying / benign / good for us.”

The Elder Scrolls Online, video game, tankard, inn, drink, woman, barman

I think this explains why I found myself opening ESO once again at the start of August and downloading the latest patches. With uncertainty about my work and concern for my family slowly gnawing away at my sense of stability, I felt as though I was floating and waiting for something to come down (to quote Athena again). I wanted to do something to take my mind off everything happening around me and all these things I couldn’t control, and I needed that thing to be something which felt safe and familiar.

But instead of returning to my old character, I decided to create a new one so I could ease myself in with the early quests. Surely it was just a coincidence that this new Wood Elf rather resembled by old one and even had the same alliance and class! This time was going to be different though, I told myself. This time around I’d complete the areas I’d already covered in my previous playthroughs, then explore new islands with a view to sticking with it and perhaps finally completing all the missions.

However, I found myself still in the starting location of Vvardenfell several days later and not having done much outside of the first few main quests. I was far too busy running around the countryside with the important task of collecting butterflies and netches for fishing bait. If I’d jumped back into ESO yet again, I was going to do it properly – and that meant making sure I had enough suitable bait to be able to catch every single rare fish in each location and earn myself those achievements.

I have a long history with fishing in this game. I’d previously bagged the Morrowind Master Angler achievement during our 50-day challenge but failed to get the Grahtwood Angler title thanks to one lousy creature. I was struggling to get the Thrassian Eel and so, as you’re more likely to catch a rare fish when others join you, I enlisted the help of Phil. The only problem was that he ended up catching that flipping eel for himself every time we fished together while I walked away empty handed.

After a few weeks of hanging around the shores in ESO and wondering just how many insect parts one Wood Elf can carry, I think my time with the game may be drawing to a close once again. The situation right now may still be unsettling; redundancies loom at work although my position isn’t at risk for the time-being, the UK is officially in recession and the number of daily coronavirus cases is on the increase. But my brief break in Vvardenfell I feel a bit more able to deal with these things mentally now.

I’m also starting to feel that familiar itch of desire to play something again, to take on a new challenge and discover a new story. As Athena explained in her post: “…grabbing a new game, playing through it, and completing – or beating – it is a way for us to vanquish a fear of the unknown. After all, that’s exactly what we’ve done: willingly put ourselves into an unknown situation, and survived it, or, dare I say, even thrived in it, if we successfully made it to the end. And isn’t that a nice feeling?”

I recently downloaded Lighthouse: The Dark Being from GOG.com after hearing about it during the Ages Before Myst talk during Mysterium 2020 at the beginning of the month. I’m surprised I’ve never come across it before; this title was released in October 1996 as was Sierra Online’s response to the success of Myst and I think it might be just what I need right now. It has that comforting nostalgia I get from old adventure games, but it’s a whole new adventure I haven’t yet experienced.

I’m sure I’ll go back to ESO at some point in the future because I always do. And one day, I’m going to catch that damn eel.