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  • Writer's pictureLarissa Velasco

Finding Balance: Gaming, Mental Health, and Well-Being

Gaming and mental health have always been subject to hot debates. While some argue that excessive gaming can lead to negative outcomes, such as addiction, social isolation, and sleep deprivation, others suggest that it can have positive effects, such as stress relief and cognitive improvement. There are both pros and cons to virtual games. However, finding a balance and enjoying games while maintaining good mental health is possible, especially when we understand what is at stake.

A quick dive into the history of games

In the vast universe of games, the variety is truly immense. Traditional card games, like poker and solitaire, have always held a charm of their own, stimulating strategic thinking and offering a medium for social interaction. Physical games such as soccer or basketball provide health benefits through physical exertion and foster teamwork and cooperation skills. Outdoor games, including classics like hide-and-seek or tag, offer the joys of freedom and exploration, stimulating creativity and connection with the natural world.

The digital age has brought us an exciting array of virtual games. These include online games that allow players from all around the globe to interact and compete in shared virtual spaces. Games like MMORPGs (massive(ly) multiplayer online role-playing games) have created entire online societies with their own economies, politics, and cultures. Single-player games offer rich narratives and immerse players in their expansive worlds, encouraging problem-solving and strategic thinking.

Finally, the rise of virtual reality (VR) games has revolutionized the gaming scene. VR technology places gamers directly into the game environment, offering unprecedented immersion and interaction. This technology has opened up a whole new dimension in gaming, delivering experiences that are more engaging and realistic than ever before. Each of these game types offers unique experiences and benefits, making the world of gaming richer and more diverse.

Gaming has many potential benefits. For one, it can be a way to relieve stress and improve mood. According to several studies, playing video games can reduce cortisol levels, a hormone tied to stress, and increase dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure. Additionally, gaming can improve cognitive skills, such as attention, memory, and problem-solving, and promote social connections within gaming communities.

The Interaction Differences between Mobile Games and Board Games:

Mobile games and board games offer different types of interaction for players. Mobile games, being digital, allow players to connect with others virtually anywhere in the world. They provide immediate feedback through on-screen prompts and notifications, and often integrate social media platforms for sharing achievements and challenges.

On the other hand, board games foster face-to-face interaction. They present an opportunity to build personal connections, foster communication skills, and encourage cooperative gameplay. The physical nature of board games, such as moving pieces or rolling dice, provides tactile feedback not present in mobile games. While the social element may not be as instantly widespread as in mobile games, the interactions in board games are more personal and direct.

Playing and Reality

Donald Winnicott, a renowned British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, underscored the significant role of play in a child's development. He emphasized that play allows children to navigate their anxieties and insecurities within a safe environment. In Winnicott's perspective, play is not merely for amusement—it is a critical avenue for self-expression and self-exploration. Through play, children can experiment with different identities, learn to deal with fear, and develop problem-solving skills.

Peekaboo is a classic and simple game that can significantly benefit a child's development. According to Winnicott, there is more to the game than just playful interaction. When children play peekaboo, they not only enjoy their caregiver's sudden disappearance and reappearance but also navigate the anxiety of separation and the joy of reunion. Children at this stage don't understand that things/people continue to exist even when they are out of sight, so peekaboo helps them learn about object permanence, develop their memory skills and understand predictable outcomes. And as we mature, we start to enjoy more complex forms of playing.

They can test the boundaries of reality and fantasy within the play context's safety net. Winnicott's theories continue to influence our understanding of child development, emphasizing that the act of playing remains an essential part of a child's journey to understanding themselves and the world around them.

As we mature and enter various stages of adulthood, the space for free play diminishes, and yet, the need for self-expression and handling fears and anxieties remains. Winnicott suggests that we navigate this through culture. He believed that cultural experiences serve as an extension of play, providing us with socially accepted ways to express ourselves creatively. Art, literature, music, and even our social interactions become our playground, allowing us to explore and understand our emotions. They become a conduit to express our fears and anxieties in a way that is accepted and celebrated. Thus, while the forms of expression evolve with age, the essence of playing as a tool for self-exploration, as proposed by Winnicott, remains ever-present.

The Dark Side: Recognizing Risks:

Along with the benefits, it is essential to acknowledge the potential risks associated with online gaming. For instance, excessive gaming can lead to addiction, isolation, and poor sleep quality. The blue light emitted by electronic screens can interfere with sleep patterns by disrupting the production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Research shows that exposure to screens before bedtime can lead to sleep problems such as insomnia and daytime sleepiness, just as using the smartphone before going to bed.

The popularity of mobile gaming has made it more accessible to a wider audience. With the increasing trend of mobile gaming, anyone can play games on their phones anytime and anywhere, making it an easy and convenient way to relieve stress. However, it's worth noting that it does not provide an opportunity for the person to confront and overcome the root cause of their stress or anxiety. Instead, it serves as a distraction from those harmful emotions.

Attention Span, Multitasking and dopamine release:

Another issue that can arise from online gaming is the impact on attention span, especially when engaging in multitasking. Studies show that multitasking, like playing games, texting, and watching movies simultaneously, can harm cognitive functions and hinder attention span. In the long term, overstimulation may lead to a decrease in creativity and problem-solving skills.

Indeed, various game formats can help enhance different cognitive skills. For instance, playing card games such as "Uno" requires keen observation and attention to other players' actions. This type of game promotes strategic thinking and the ability to anticipate opponents' moves, leading to an improvement in attention quality and decision-making skills. On the other hand, word games like Crosswords challenge the players' vocabulary and problem-solving abilities. They stimulate the brain to forge connections between clues, fostering lateral thinking and enhancing memory recall. Therefore, the type of game played can significantly impact the kind of cognitive development experienced by individuals.

Mobile games like Candy Crush, for example, can improve hand-eye coordination and logic patterns. However, the game's highly rewarding design creates an addictive sensation that might hook players more than the game itself. One significant factor contributing to the addictive nature of online gaming is the release of dopamine associated with playing the game.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter known to create feelings of pleasure, and it is released when we engage in activities that we find enjoyable or rewarding. In online gaming, each victory, achievement, or game progression leads to a surge of dopamine, reinforcing the player's behaviour and creating a neural pathway that makes them want to repeat the experience.

Expecting potential rewards or success in the game can also trigger dopamine release, keeping players hooked for hours. This continuous dopamine stimulation can lead to addictive behaviour as players increasingly seek out the pleasurable sensations associated with gaming, often at the expense of other important tasks or responsibilities.

Balancing Gaming with Other Activities:

As the saying goes, too much of a good thing can be harmful. Still, it is possible to manage gaming hours for a healthy balance. One strategy is to set boundaries by mapping out time for gaming and sticking to it while prioritizing other social and physical activities. Regular exercise can counter the sedentary nature of gaming and provide a physical and mental break from screen time. Lastly, fostering social interactions outside of gaming can add meaning to everyday life and help establish balance.

Screen Time Management and Sleep Hygiene:

In today's digital age, screens are an inevitable part of our lives. Still, it is possible to manage screen time for better mental health and well-being. It helps to establish a bedtime routine that fosters better sleep hygiene by committing to a regular sleep schedule and gradually reducing screen exposure before bedtime. Additionally, incorporating activities that do not involve screens, such as meditation or reading books, can further encourage better sleep habits.

In conclusion, the relationship between gaming and mental health is neither straightforward nor deterministic. As with many things, moderation is key. While gaming can have positive effects, like stress relief and cognitive improvement, it is also essential to recognize the potential risks, such as addiction and poor sleep quality. Managing screen time and incorporating other activities like physical exercise and social interaction can add balance and promote better mental and physical well-being.

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