For those who equate their self-worth with their productivity levels – as many of us unfortunately do – online games might seem like a frivolous waste of time. However, recent studies have shown that playing games online (in moderation, of course) can have significant positive effects on our mental health. Just like reading or taking a walk can help us take time out from the pressures of daily life, gaming can provide a space for relaxation or some healthy, friendly competition. Some video games also help people develop or maintain complex problem-solving skills, and promote interaction between people who might otherwise feel isolated. Here are some other reasons why you might want to reframe how you think about online gaming.

Mental Stimulation

Unlike when you watch TV to unwind, playing a game requires your brain to engage in creative ways. Many online games are structured to become more complex and challenging as you master each level, requiring strategic, analytic and quick decision-making skills. Whether you’re battling Level 66 of Candy Crush or working together with online friends in a role-playing game (or an RPG, as many gamers call them) you are keeping your brain elastic and active. In a 2015 study, research found that playing video games provided a variety of cognitive benefits, like an improved ability to multitask, reduction of impulsivity and an improvement in memory, attention and decision-making abilities.

Emotional Regulation

Despite the media’s portrayal of online gaming as an industry filled with gratuitous violence and vice, there are dozens of studies that have shown links between video game play and positive emotions for players. (You can refer to a few of them here: Ryan et al., 2006; Kutner and Olson, 2008; Wang et al., 2008; Przybylski et al., 2009a; Allahverdipour et al., 2010.) In different studies, gaming has been advocated as a means of relaxation and stress reduction. One study found that depressed mood was significantly lower in moderate players of video games compared to those who never play, or play in excess. 

Dr. Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist, wrote that games are a particularly efficient vehicle for mood management because they engage players in a way that meets basic, universal psychological needs.

“They give you a sense of autonomy (you are free to make your own choices and have control), competence (you can achieve things, be successful) and relatedness (connecting with other villagers and your friends via online play). […] Having these needs met, while also having the added element of playfulness, makes us feel good, happy and satisfied.” 

In even more extreme cases, some games can be used to help people recover from significant trauma. For example, one app called Norbu uses simple games to reduce stress, promote mindfulness and retrain problematic neural networks. Since the height of the pandemic, the game Animal Crossing has been found to provide emotional support, help isolated people connect to communities, and provide a place for grieving people to memorialize loved ones.

Feeling of Accomplishment

Say what you will about it being silly, but there is definitely a feeling of accomplishment when you win a level or complete an online puzzle successfully. There’s a reason Wordle took off during the pandemic: People felt like they’d achieved something they could share when the world around them was collapsing. Particularly for people who are under-stimulated or isolated, this small sense of achievement can play a large role in maintaining positive mental health.

Social Interaction

Other research has found that playing both single-player and multiplayer games can significantly increase socialization and communication skills. Take Wordle again, for example. Although the puzzle game is played alone (indeed, it would be cheating to do it otherwise) it encouraged people all over the world to share their results and compete to see who could solve it in fewer guesses. In addition, online games can foster social relationships through a sense of shared experience in a fun, safe space. 

Online Games You Might Enjoy 

There are so many games available online that provide these benefits. Here’s a handy list of a few that could be right up your alley:

  • Match Three – A company rather than one specific game, Match 3 makes some of the best “Bubble Shooter” and “Candy Crush”-esque games available.
  • Jigsaw Puzzle – Thanks to the internet, you can solve jigsaw puzzles without taking over your entire dining room table for days at a time.
  • Fruit Ninja – This highly satisfying game requires you to “slash” fruit with your finger during timed trials to rack up points.
  • Breath of Light – Manipulate a captivating particle flow of light to pass life force from one white lotus flower to the others by moving stones, filters, mirrors and other objects in a futuristic Zen garden. 
  • Viridi – This gardening simulation game featuring succulents is a soothing, satisfying way to pass time.
  • Inks – Pinball, but with vibrant splashes of color and the added element of physics puzzlers.
  • 2048 – Highly addictive, simple addition game. Swipe tiles and merge adjacent ones that have the same number to obtain a tile that equals their aggregate. The game ends when there are no moves left, or you reach the magic number, 2048. 

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