We are thankful to Brick & Spoon for sponsoring our Candid Conversations with Teens Editorial Series. Written by local teens, these stories highlight what may be impacting them from their perspective—issues might be social, academic, physical, political, economic, etc.
In households across America, video games have been blamed countless times as being good for nothing but to serve as a distraction. As video game popularity and prices rise, many parents are questioning the appeal or point of video games in their homes. Especially due to increasing prices, some parents hold a strongly bitter opinion on them or disallow them outright.
As a teenager who has played video games since elementary school, I hope to destigmatize them by showing the positive mental health effects of playing them as well as the negative effects of taking them away.
For one, video games can teach many important life lessons. One in particular that is exceedingly common in this form of media is the fact that tougher challenges grant greater rewards. Take the game Nier Replicant for example. As the game progresses, the player will encounter monsters called Shades. They serve as obstacles between the player and their objective. A smaller, more common enemy is likely to drop something easy to obtain like a Medicinal Herb. The item can be found under trees and bought from shops with in-game currency for very cheap. However, a large and hard to defeat enemy will drop something rarer and harder to obtain, such as a Complex Machine. This item is important to upgrade weapons and cannot be obtained any other way.
“Similarly to video games, life can be more rewarding if greater challenges are taken.”
For example, going to college can be difficult but offers the opportunity to find a job with higher pay. The route is not as easy as getting a job right out of high school, but has the potential for greater reward.
Another lesson taught by video games is resource management.
Take Outlast, for example. In the game, the player traverses a dark, abandoned asylum. If the player uses too much battery power in the early stages of the game, the later stages of the game that give less batteries are a lot more challenging. They may have used a lot of battery power for their light in the beginning of the game to feel more comfortable, but later stages rarely provide batteries and are harder or impossible to complete without light.
Similarly, if someone spends a lot of money as soon as they earn it, it is harder to buy things they may want or need later on. Buying that expensive and popular accessory might give comfort at the moment of purchase, as it’s the new “in thing,” but leaves less money for important things like food or rent.
“Life lessons are very important to being a successful person, and the lack of this knowledge in particular can make a person’s life much more difficult.”
This only scratches the surface of the variety of lessons video games can teach.
Others can include perseverance, not everything can be done alone, things may not always be as they seem, and problems need to be confronted. Developing an understanding for these ideas can change the course of someone’s life entirely; by learning the life lessons that video games teach, a person can become more successful and aware of the way the world works as opposed to having to struggle through learning everything on their own. Thus, video games can be beneficial to mental development.
The whole genre of calmer role-playing games can teach self-worth and social skills.
Animal Crossing, a game series in the social simulation genre, is good at teaching the former. In Animal Crossing New Horizons, the player is the owner of an island that he/she builds up and decorates to their liking. If the player does not log on for the day or longer, weeds will grow and villagers will get sad. The player is important to the upkeep and wellbeing of the island, showing how important the player is. This can be helpful for players with conditions like depression, showing them that they are cared about. It is also good at teaching social skills. Being mean to villagers, by doing something like hitting them with a net or pushing them around, will make them upset. They will refuse to talk to the player for hours.
Villagers can also spread what the player says to them to other villagers. This includes both kinder messages and mean or profane ones, meaning the player’s favorite villager can pick up a rude phrase spoken to their least favorite villager.
The games encourage treating everyone (villager) kindly, both in words and actions, even if it is one the player does not like.
In addition, Stardew Valley is an RPG (roleplaying game) that encourages positive social skills. The game has a hearts system that rewards the players with new content as the player builds up relationships with the townspeople. For example, having a high heart level with the villager Emily allows the use of her sewing machine. Her sewing machine is the only way the player can make clothing in the game. The game even shows friendships that are not physically rewarding; the villager Maru goes stargazing with the player at the highest heart level, and Sebastian tells the player his hopes and dreams. Experiences and earning of trust can be rewards, not just money or objects.
“Just as it is in life, friendships are shown as rewarding endeavors. Thus, the player is taught that positive relationships are worth the time and effort they take.”
In these two games and similar games within the genre, the player is shown that there is not only worth in themselves, but worth in showing kindness to others. Such skills are beneficial to making friendships, as people are generally more willing to befriend those who are nicer to themselves and others. Friendship and social skills can help build a support system, and thus help better mental health.
Video games can also help build healthier coping mechanisms.
Playing video games itself is a healthy coping mechanism when done in moderation. Being sedentary for the majority of the day because of them is bad, do not misunderstand, but some aspects of them are beneficial in the way that they can help relieve stress.
For one, defeating enemies in games can be an outlet for anger and stress. Instead of taking these emotions out on people in the real world, players are able to defeat enemies until the feeling passes. Calmer games, on the opposite end of the spectrum, can relieve stress simply by their soothing nature. Players are free to do as much or as little as they want within any amount of time, which can help one unwind and relax. Thus, games can help players destress regardless of the genre.
In addition, video games can help build healthy coping mechanisms for heavier subjects or mental illnesses.
For example, in the JRPG (Japanese roleplaying game) Persona 5, Futaba Sakura is shown struggling through severe social anxiety. Through her friendship arc—an optional part of the story that allows the player to learn more about her—the player learns that she hides away from people most of the time by either not going outside or completely hiding herself in public. She also believed that she would have to struggle through her anxiety alone, until the player shows up and helps her get better. The player can do the same things that their character did to help Sakura overcome her social anxiety to help themselves; they can start slow and stay close to people they know well, then very slowly branch off as they feel more comfortable.
Thus, video games can be effective in helping players build healthy coping mechanisms for everything from everyday stressors to mental health conditions.
The issue comes when parents or guardians try to take away video games as punishment.
When games are taken away, the child misses out on the life lessons, social skills, and coping mechanisms taught by them. Children can easily think of the punishment as a result of not doing something they could not do in the first place, as fear of failure is an exceedingly common hindrance for task initiation and completion. Homework or chores can be hard to even start if the child is unsure they can do it correctly or within the desired time limit.
Taking away video games can take away a method of coping with the stress or mental illness that is keeping them from doing the task, and more stress is added when those expectations are more dire (wanting to get the games back or needing to catch up on what they have missed); thus, stress and in turn mental health can get exponentially worse.
“Adults need to know about the positive effects of video games on the mental health of a child to understand that it is possible to find more beneficial ways to help their child or children without making the problem worse.”
Video games, as shown, have great benefits to players’ mental health.
Instead of taking them away, perhaps set up something like an incentive system like so: the child initiates the task, be it homework or chores. They give the task their best effort, not perfection, without being criticized. After tasks are done for the day, the child can be free to play as many games as they please before they must go to bed. They get an immediate reward, being video game time, for their efforts instead of punishment for something they find hard to do. It thus creates a positive correlation between working and reward.
Working becomes easier to start because the stress and stakes are lower, which can help games be less distracting; after all, they will not feel that they need an escape as strongly. This way, there is an improvement in the child’s performance without taking away the benefits of video games and seeing the problem get worse.
Therefore, video games are important to children in the way that they teach important life lessons, teach social skills, and help build healthy coping mechanisms.
Many parents believe that video games are to blame for low grades in children, but taking them away as punishment is far from the answer; after all, they will miss out on the positive effects of gaming and risk getting much more stressed. Instead, adults should work with the children to find a solution that helps them try their best for the sake of rewards instead of the fear of punishment.