Rishi Bijlani, 28, took years to become a professional gamer and, at the same time, faced a lot of negativity in game rooms. A loner who has always had a tough time socialising and making friends, Bijlani says that he has encountered bullying and racism in online matches. "Anonymity is appealing for those who want to vent out their pent up frustration and those who cannot handle defeat," he says. "You can mute them as much as you like, but at the end of the day, you cannot deny the fact that your mental health has been affected." Bijlani is just one of the many gamers who deal with biases and stereotypes in the gaming world. And that's not all. With women gamers also getting headway in this universe, sexism has also become commonplace in game rooms.
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With gamers encountering myriad mental health issues, the UK-based non-profit Mental Health Foundation (MHF) gave five pointers for the developers to consider towards the upkeep of the players' mental health.
1. Tackle harmful behaviours and toxic communities
2. Tackle discrimination by ensuring that there is meaningful inclusion and representation in the design of games and in the industry
3. Embed mental health content in games
4. Raise awareness of mental well-being in the gaming community more broadly
5. Help players game more intentionally via design features
Experts share their opinion on the recommendations and share healthy practices that gamers can follow daily for maintaining their mental health.
Opinion on the recommendations
Anubhuti Das, a counselling psychologist at the Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Fortis Hospital Mumbai, believes that the recommendations given by the foundation are appropriate and would strategise eliminating the harmful impact of the gaming culture. "Additionally, the mental health of any individual relies on their awareness about it. In Das's opinion, the recommendations definitely check any direct emotional or mental harm on the gamers. “Furthermore, getting aware and realizing about compromised Mental Health will compel the individual to work towards a healthier change.”
Dr Pallav Bonerjee, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist and psychotherapist who has worked with gamers, concurs with Das as he believes that the recommendations by the MHF seem to be quite timely and relevant for gamers all over the world today. But he isn't sure how effectively these recommendations will be implemented within the gaming-developer communities if at all these are taken seriously. "I am not sure what kind of checks and balances can be put in place to act as deterrents for people who may disregard these recommendations. In the absence of specific positive reinforcements to encourage these changes in games development and the absence of any specific negative implications for developers who choose to ignore these suggestions may also result in these recommendations looking good on paper, but without any real impact," he warns.
The recommendations by the Mental Health Foundation highlight the role that developers play in making gaming a safer experience. Incorporating more mental health-related content seems a great idea, as it will help make people aware and help gamers identify their own mental health struggles and if there's something that they are escaping from.
Understanding the issues
With the advent of new technologies, today's gaming experience is much more immersive and visceral compared to what it used to be some years ago. This is good enough to explain why many people today are eager to explore gaming and may find it difficult to pull out from its excitement and distraction.
Bonerjee professes that he understands the pull of video games after working with gamers. He describes this pull by saying, "After a hard day's work, it might be very tempting to decompress by slipping into the shoes of a virtual character on a mission in a faraway land engaging in battle, making strategic decisions, rescuing team-mates and defeating an enemy. It serves as a mental stimulant, boosting our moods and challenging us in a variety of ways by promoting problem-solving skills, creativity and a sense of accomplishment." He adds that multi-player formats allow gamers to engage with their friends, which is an added bonus. "Our daily lives, for the most part, fall short of such high drama," he infers.
In Bonerjee's opinion, the problem begins when the designated time for gaming for a person starts infiltrating into other domains of one's life, and it becomes difficult to disengage. "It is during such periods, an individual may start feeling dysfunctional or disoriented due to excessive time spent on gaming, and it has ceased to remain limited to a time-bound recreational and fun activity." In an attempt to get significantly better at a specific game and thereby generate more followers on social media and boost self-esteem, a gamer may keep mindlessly at it for extended periods. "Every time the goal is unmet, it may lead to feelings of anxiety and loss of status among friends who also belong to the same gaming community," Bonerjee explains. All of this could be a vicious cycle for most impressionable youngsters who are looking for ways to get popular quickly online. “Poor performance also often leads to toxic jibes from other players and viewers, which may escalate feelings of failure and incompetence for someone with already fragile self-worth. These could lead to severe emotional trauma and might require active intervention in the form of therapy for depression and anxiety," he says.
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Understanding the addiction
One major cause of gaming addiction is the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is released when the brain is expecting a reward. The brain identifies a certain activity with pleasure, and just anticipation of that activity increases dopamine levels leading to addiction. Das reasons that games are designed in a gratifying way, making people want to play for hours at end. "Online games have become a social platform where players interact with one another. They form an identity for themselves which is different from their real-life identity. Gaming platform chiefly provides an environment where the person can feel in control, and also feel safe," she elaborates. Bijlani speaks from a gamers' perspective, saying that games become an escape route for those who may be anxious or depressed. "Those who are busy mastering the game also end up becoming detached to the real world," he adds. Tanvi Jajoria, a counselling psychologist, Betterlyf Wellness, concurs with Bijani. "Usually people who are trying to escape real-life struggles find gaming as a source of instant gratification, and for some, it even gives them an instant rush of dopamine, which helps them feel a sense of achievement."
In line with her view on the causes of gaming addiction, Jajoria says that the first step to preventing or working on mental health issues caused by gaming is to acknowledge the issues. "If it's not an addiction yet, regulate your gaming time and make it a part of your routine like any other hobby. The more you tell yourself not to do something, the more you may want to do it," she says.
Das recommends gamers to practice sleep hygiene by keeping gadgets away from bed at night will help in not playing games during sleep hours. She also says that other activities should be included in everyday schedules such as exercises, self-care time, meditation, yoga, connecting with pets and loved ones. Das also suggests that gamers should consider pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy as a treatment route based on the severity of the addiction and mental health condition. "Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is considered effective in bringing a significant change in the symptoms of video gaming addiction," she observes.
Jajoria advises gamers to designate some time in their day for gaming in a way that does not affect their physical or mental health. "Take the control in your hand, rather than being controlled by it," she comments.
Dr Pallav Bonerjee's recommendations