If we believe what we read in books or see in movies, we would imagine a gamer as a reclusive figure, hunched over a screen with flashing images, alone in a darkened room. The activity itself often has negative associations—addictive, excessive screen time, escapist, sedentary, and socially withdrawn. Contrary to these perceptions, anecdotal evidence along with studies and research show the social and psychological benefits of playing online games. Many have discovered fulfilling relationships with other players, and the tasks, challenges and competition can help with anxiety, stress and adaptability in different situations. In over a year of lockdowns and social distancing, online games have been a social and emotional lifeline to many, even to those new to the experience.
Shivani Dayal Kapoor discovered this when she played Tambola online with her family over lockdown, enjoying the bonding, distraction and stress reduction. The market research consultant, currently on a sabbatical, missed the pre-pandemic ritual of Sunday family lunches at her grandmother’s house in Delhi. Conversations dwindled over regular Zoom calls, prompting Kapoor to try something more engaging. The sessions were a hit with relatives in different countries joining in, prizes introduced and even birthdays celebrated through the game.
Dr. Neeru Kanwar Choudhuri, a psychotherapist in private practice in New Delhi, identifies one of the rules of dealing with depression as staying socially connected. “This is challenging in a pandemic. I encourage clients to be active virtually. Games provide an ease for social connection. They also provide respite and distraction for anxious clients. Some are motivated by the competition and sense of accomplishment.”
Even those who enjoy time alone are attracted to the social aspect of gaming. “I do well with alone time, but not having external stimuli was starting to get depressing. My brother and his friends set up a group to play and I jumped in and found myself completely captivated,” says Sushmita Sundaram, communications lead at a technology startup in Bengaluru, who plays games like Among Us, Codenames and Garticphone with a floating group of friends. Others enjoy the nostalgia and comfort, like Divya Raghav who played Atlas, a trivia and general knowledge game, with family and friends online several times a week in lockdown.
The pandemic also displaced many people, abruptly disrupting their lives. Abhijit Prasad has not returned to the UK, where he was studying, since lockdown last year. The advertising professional in Lucknow plays online games regularly with his friends, spread across various countries, to stay in touch. “Conversations on Zoom calls run out after a point, so we structure our time around playing ‘Bingo’ or drinking games like ‘Never Have I Ever’,” he says.
This attempt to simulate a live experience is the reason Jaipreet Singh chose to play online golf with his real-life golf mates. “I’ve never been into online games, but when lockdown interrupted our weekly golf games, I joined in the virtual sessions,” says the Gurugram-based corporate trainer.
For those who are socially quiet, gaming can be a way to engage with others without feeling overwhelmed. “The social pressure to stay super engaged is reduced when you’re playing a game. I think it’s a great way to get some social energy, but not feel that Zoom doom in a group video call,” says Sundaram.
Catharsis and liberation can be favourable byproducts, where the safe confines of a game permit activities and behaviour, which are not the norm or acceptable in reality, like wearing outlandish costumes; sabotaging and eliminating other players; or even being politically incorrect. Prasad often plays ‘Cards Against Humanity’ online, a fill-in-the-blanks game with phrases or words that would otherwise be deemed offensive. “The humour is liberating. The jokes are uncool in any other context, but the game is a safe space,” he says.
Many have discovered a surprising side to themselves or other players. “I learned about everyone’s competitive spirit and how well-read these people who I meet frequently are. I was also able to see that my assertiveness training had paid off!” said Raghav.
Too much of a good thing
Dr. Choudhuri advises caution when selecting games in certain cases. “Some games may disturb the sense of self-esteem for a vulnerable person. Insecure or anxious persons can be caught in a loop of rejection and then redemption by trying to win approval against all odds.” She also cautions against a reliance on this make-believe world. “One may prefer to actively avoid reality as it appears tiresome in comparison to an attractive virtual reality.”
Will the lure of online gaming continue when physical interactions resume? The novelty of in-person interactions may overshadow the joy of these games, feels Sundaram. “I don’t know if I’ll keep up with it as much after we go back to the old normal, but I’ll be less dismissive of it the next time someone suggests it.”