Mental health and gaming: Is there a link?

This year the international classification of diseases (ICD) will be updated for the first time since 1990. ICD is a system used to record diseases in most health environments around the world, particularly in Europe. The new version, ICD-11,   promises to help professionals make more accurate diagnoses. One new condition which will be added, is likely to be called gaming disorder. This is in the same vein DSM-5—the classification system used in the USA—introduced Internet Gaming Disorder in 2013. It will be classified as part of impulse control disorders and behavioural addictions.

The draft definition of Gaming Disorder is: gaming behaviour (“digital-gaming” or “video-gaming”) characterised by impaired control over gaming, increasing priority given to gaming over other activities to the extent that gaming takes precedence over other interests and daily activities, and continuation or escalation of gaming despite the occurrence of negative consequences.

For gaming disorder to be diagnosed, the behaviour pattern must be of sufficient severity to result in significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning and would normally have been evident for at least 12 months.

The concern is that gaming is seen as a bad thing that can lead to this condition if left unchecked. There is evidence that gaming behaviour in moderation is probably good for you.

A study by Fernandez and colleagues focused on people with eating disorders (and other impulse control disorders) using a video game specially designed to help with their condition. Post video game, it was found that short term effects of playing included showing new coping skills when put in stressful life situations. Participants also showed more self-control when trying to cope with the event. The therapeutic videogame, acted as a tool which allowed people to work through their emotional problems.

The PERMA model describes 5 wellbeing areas.: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment. Games can be played as a form of stress-reduction and address the area of positive emotion in the model. Kutner and Olson found that boys who did not play video games during the week, had a higher risk of emotional problems. Those who did play games were found to use the games to control their emotions. The feeling of being in the ‘zone’ some players may experience may improve the engagement area of the model. Immersion in the game world can divert attention from real-world stress. This can result in relaxed, even meditative states of play.

As described by the draft in ICD-11 too much game play can begin to impact your interpersonal relationships. Yet, if you control your play time and prioritise the important things, online video games can improve your social circle. A study by Yee (2006) showed that online players under 18 have said that their online friendships are sometimes better than their real-life friendships. They also said that online play often extends to real life relationships. Some online games can also encourage you to interact with your friends and family. This can be done by sending messages or items via the game to help each other. Being part of online missions can also bring a sense of purpose to one’s life. This may in turn improve mental well-being. According to McGonigal (2011) video game players often feel as if they are contributing to something larger than themselves. Tasks are being completed and the player would then feel as if they have achieved something - which links to the ‘accomplishment’ area of the PERMA model.

The nature of video games would appear to promote many of the PERMA model areas. This means that playing games can actually have good effects on mental health and also improve social life. There is also further studies which look at intervention on mental health problems, by the use of digital methods. A study by Christoforou and colleagues looked at digital intervention in participants with Agoraphobia (a severe panic disorder.) The trial ran for 12 weeks on 170 participants who were assessed pre, during and post treatment. The aim was to see whether two ‘serious gaming’ apps could help improve anxiety and agoraphobia symptoms. The results showed that mobile apps, using CBT techniques were beneficial.

Tech and gaming doesn’t just have benefits on mental health but they can also provide improvement in a range of areas. For example, a study published  in 2013 on ‘Current biology’ said that 12 hours of action video gaming can improve reading skills in dyslexic children. Reading ability was measured before and after playing games and the results suggested that children’s skills had improved after playing. They also reported an improvement in their ability to focus.

According to, four out of five US houses with a male child own a video game system. Boys play for an average of nine hours per week, but only a small amount of them display bad behaviours. This rate is equal or better to those households that don’t have a gaming system. Research has also shown that playing violent video games can cause a feeling of guilt that leads to increased prosocial (helping) behaviours in the real-world. According to a report on youth violence by Surgeons General,   the list of risk factors for youth violence included abusive parents, poverty, neglect, crime, substance use, and mental health problems; but not video games. Finally, a study which looked at 10 countries with the biggest video game markets found no links between playing video games and gun-related killings. Besides the US, the nine other countries with the highest video game usage have some of the lowest violent crime rates

It is clear that video games have a number of benefits. As long as you play video games in moderation and it is not impacting your everyday life, you should see benefits to your wellbeing, coordination and cognitive functions. With tech always progressing, there is now a whole range of games that have a specific focus. These include de-stressing, tackling your bad thoughts, acting as a distraction tool or even having an educational focus for children. Of course, screen time should be limited and, as with most things, moderation is the key to health.

For some more information on the benefits of play regarding children and adolescents - you can find a free guide here:

Sam GlassComment