Where is the intersection of games and mental health? (Featuring Take This.)

When they learn what I do, parents will sometimes express concerns like, “My child never sees their friends because they’re always playing games,” or, “They have no motivation for school, or finding a job, because they’re always playing games.”

I’m never quite sure how to answer because, if the implication is that videogames themselves are causing a tendency towards isolation or hopelessness, I feel ill-equipped to articulate why I (generally) don’t believe this is the case. My gut feeling is that it seems to misunderstand what games are and why people play.

Raffael Boccamazzo, PsyD (“Dr. B”) is the Clinical Director of Take This (named for the moment when the player is given a sword in The Legend of Zelda, “It’s dangerous to go alone, take this.”) He kindly responded to some questions I posed, so that this page can provide answers based on direct work with gamers and game industry professionals.

What is Take This and why reach out to gamers specifically about their mental health?

Take This is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose mission is to destigmatize and educate on mental health in our community. One in four people will be diagnosed with a mental illness in their lifetime, and yet – even with something so common – the stigma of getting help for one’s mental health still exists. We reach out to gamers because we are gamers. They are our community.

We reach our community via several methods. The first is our Take This AFK Rooms: first-of-their-kind, staffed, quiet mental health spaces at major conventions. We’ve been running those since 2014 and directly helped thousands find rest and respite at hectic conventions in 2017 alone. We also offer educational resources and expert content on our website, as well as through our media partners. We also offer training and consultation services to the games industry to optimize mental health practices and policies.

Do games cause or exacerbate common conditions; anxiety, depression, PTSD?

Games are no more intrinsically responsible for the exacerbation of mental illness than any other hobby. In fact, there’s some evidence that interactive forms of media like videogames are better at helping people improve their mood in the short term than passive forms of media like watching TV or listening to music. Like any other hobby or behavior, a person can engage compulsively or obsessively, but in those cases it’s the underlying reasons we need to look at, and that’s where consulting a good mental health professional comes in.

Are gamers an at-risk group for developing mental health conditions?

Gamers are no longer a rarefied subsection of society (if they ever actually were). Video games have grown from an approximate $4 billion industry in 1996 to a $31 billion industry in 2017. The average age and number of gamers has grown with that. Games are now a major method by which people and families of all ages socialize, and there’s no reason to believe gamers are more at-risk for mental illness than anyone else.

If parents think their young gamer might be sad, stressed or suffering silently, what are some ways to start a conversation?

Focus on behavior and just ask with an open mind and without blanket condemnations of any hobby, video games, music, or otherwise. For example, “I’ve noticed you’ve been spending a lot of time alone and have seemed sadder than usual. What’s going on?”

For some other resources and ideas (including international crisis lines) check out Take This’ resource page here.