This article was brought to my attention by Wai Yen Tang (@WY_Tang). It’s one of a growing number of research pieces looking at the context in which a game is played rather than simply the content. The authors found that escapism predicted well-being. That is, gamers who were motivated to play a video game in order to escape their difficulties reported lower levels of well-being than those who played for other reasons. They also found that the more a gamer used video games as an escape, the less they engaged in offline social support. Offline social support was strongly correlated with well-being. In short, using video games as an escape resulted in lower reported well-being, likely due depletion of offline social support.
In my research, I had similar findings regarding gaming motivation. When gamers reported using games as a way to escape everyday problems, they reported worse mental health symptoms. It drives home the point that although games are fun, enjoyable, and can be used to therapeutic benefit, they alone are not a replacement for treatment. This study suggests why that may be – that losing yourself in the game world withdraws you from your offline social support networks. While they did find that online social support was helpful, the relationship wasn’t very strong.
So people are retreating into games and it’s costing them social support. This kind of isolation or withdrawal is not uncommon in most mental illnesses. Strengthening and reinforcing the social support network is a common aspect of therapeutic treatment. So how do we build up their social support group? One way would be to fortify existing support networks in game. World of Warcraft has a guild for players to talk to one another and offer support. Another option would be to somehow integrate support networks into the games themselves. However, would a player use these services given he or she is using the game as a means to escape – not confront – their problems? Perhaps the use of modeling behaviors in game, such as a character seeking out a therapist after experiencing common symptoms of stress of distress, could help provide some psychoeducation on the sly and work toward destigmatizing help-seeking behaviors. Or perhaps something as simple as providing information on places to seek geek- and gamer-friendly help (Take This) would help players to feel they are not alone in the offline world.