How Video Games Became a Refuge for Isolated Gamers

Games are good, actually

Key Takeaways

  • Research suggests the uniqueness of social gaming and the pandemic has led to a connection between playing video games and happiness.
  • Video games have been a reprieve from the unique isolation people have experienced due to COVID-19. 
  • Gamers continue to create community amidst the pandemic while trying to maintain a balance with their mental health.
A gamer wearing augemented reality glasses, touching a TV screen with her head bowed.
Qi Yang / Getty Images

For decades, the conventional wisdom surrounding video games has been negative, but new insights suggest gaming has become a balm for the socially isolated as material conditions continue to unravel amid the coronavirus pandemic and uncertainty of 2020.  

A new, first-of-its-kind Oxford University study found video games to be linked to a net increase in self-reported happiness. Time spent playing video games is positively correlated with well-being, based on playtime data obtained by researchers from Animal Crossing and Plants vs. Zombies parent companies Nintendo and EA, respectively. The more time a person spends playing these video games, the study says, the more happiness they experience.

"Other forms of mass media such as books, television and movies need readers and audiences to empathize with the characters in their stories. In contrast, video games are more self-focused," Lin Zhu, a graduate student at the University of Albany researching video games and psychology, said in an interview.

"Whether RPGs, third-person games or those like Animal Crossing which allow players to act as themselves, the players can experience the game world more directly. In other words, in the game world, you can control your destiny, and you can just be yourself in some way."

"If I’m feeling very low, simulation games help to boost my mood. I’ll find myself escaping reality and living vicariously through my game."

Gaming’s Happiness Quotient

Like the Oxford study’s findings, Zhu’s research has focused on social-based video games like Animal Crossing and their popularity during the onset of quarantine-imposed isolation. The game quickly became an early star of the pandemic back in April 2020 with its whimsical, colorful free-roam world being a virtual departure from the bleakness of the social isolation many people were experiencing at the height of quarantine.

In her research study, “The psychology behind video games during COVID‐19 pandemic: A case study of Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” Zhu uncovered a unique relationship between video game audiences and their preferred medium.

Video games operate as a psychologically motivated sense of security during the touch-and-go reality of the coronavirus pandemic. Seen as a reprieve from the anxiety associated with lockdown and seclusion of the early outbreak, people’s natural desire for social interaction could be met via video games in ways other mass media sources could not.

Survey data compiled by research firm Satellite Internet found 33% of gamers were playing more during quarantine than they were prior. Of those playing more, nearly one in four, 23%, said they played four or more hours a day. An additional 30% played at least two to three hours daily.  

A young adult playing video gamers over a pizza and a drink.
 blackCAT / Getty Images

Games with a larger focus on interconnectivity—online video games and simulation-based titles—were the ones more likely to be linked to an increase in reported happiness connected to time played. These multilateral findings continue to cast doubt on long-held cultural assumptions that have continuously suggested video games erode the wellbeing of players.

How Gamers Cope

Joyce White is a 27-year-old gamer who found herself on the wrong side of the coronavirus pandemic. Unemployed due to the economic downturn brought about by lockdowns and industry disruption, White sought a sense of normalcy in her gaming life. It was the one thing she could control in a year chock-full of personal and financial setbacks and disappointments.

"This pandemic has certainly tested me mentally and emotionally. I’ve found that although I enjoy spending time alone that it can also be my worst enemy. Games have always been a way for me to escape the stresses of day to day life. Living in simulation rather than stressing from reality," she said.

"If I’m feeling very low, simulation games help to boost my mood. I’ll find myself escaping reality and living vicariously through my game."

White created a space for like-minded gamers who deal with mental health issues to congregate and be themselves while enjoying their favorite pastime. She thinks this kind of community building is important not just for herself but for others as the coronavirus continues to rage on with record-breaking cases eight months out with no clear end in sight.  

"In the game world, you can control your destiny, and you can just be yourself in some way."

Covid-19 has caused lockdowns within a myriad of jurisdictions across the country and around the world that have, in turn, exacerbated economic downturn and resulted in the retarding of growth for key industries. As a result, people have found themselves both socially and economically isolated in an unprecedented fashion.

Through modern technological advancements, many of those same people have been able to connect to friends, families, and acquaintances in innovative ways. Those like White have found their brand of sanctuary in gaming.

"I’ve used [gaming] as a coping mechanism since I was 9 years old. Being able to control the outcome of something helps. There’s no negative backlash from my game; there’s always an option to restart and receive the outcome I want," White said.

"It’s a shame to say—but I can’t go a day without my game. Whether I’m playing Bitlife on my phone or The Sims 4 on my laptop, there’s always a game occupying my time… gaming genuinely makes me happy."