Gaming, Fiber for the Mind


We have all been told at some time to stop wasting our time on games and to go do something constructive, or get out and do some exercise, by loved ones and family members.

Have you sat down and really considered what gaming does for us? What muscles does it stretch? Could it be your ‘B vitamins for your brain’? Or is it really just junk food of the mind leading you into a den of pleasures and peril?

The guys over at RPG Research have done just that, and can provide an incredible volume of resources with which to prove to loved ones and family members that your latest RPG investment is by no means a waste.

I have been a caregiver for the acutely mentally ill for over 25 years now, and have been a mental health advocate since 2009. I am not a researcher but I can tell you what I have learned…

Games in all their formats and genres are invaluable to patients and caregivers.

Gaming is a gateway to numerous genres and worlds, constantly presenting more material to learn and process. Unlike movies, books and music; gaming is an interactive social medium to explore these worlds, cultures and stories.

Gaming provides frequent low-risk opportunities to practice critical thinking and analysis of emotional responses – an application of what is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Our responses are calmly calculated based on the information and situation in front of us, rather than merely letting our emotional response of the moment rule our behavior, aided by the fact that we have the detachment of it being a game rather than life. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one of the most common talk therapies in use today, and is so effective at improving performance and overall mental health that it is often presented as a worthy contribution to curricula in schools. Rather than lashing out because our best friend made a move that is advantageous for themselves, which consequently blocked our plans, we instead look for alternative paths to our goal. Just as in the real world, revenge can be costly.

It encourages us to plan ahead, to pace and time our actions and resources to best effect, watching and planning ahead of our current move towards a goal, breaking up larger actions into our strategic moves. These skills are incredibly valuable in life and can be difficult to develop without a game environment in which to regularly practice and make mistakes without risk, beyond the risk of not winning the game. This is not a skill which comes naturally to all people, particularly those with impulse control issues. For those challenged by Mania or ADHD, it can be a significant difficulty leading to poverty and homelessness. However, by regularly practicing and developing methods in game to pace and manage resources over time, they learn to apply these skills in their day-to-day life to good effect.

But the most important aspect of gaming is socialization. Often enough we hear in the media that gaming is often associated with depression and anxiety, this is not a causal link, gaming does not cause depression and anxiety. What gaming does do is bypass or mitigate the symptoms of mental illness to facilitate social contact, friendships, companionship, communication and interaction with peers.

Mental illness is incredibly lonely; it is terrifying. Depression doesn’t always have a reason. There isn’t always a why. It simply is, like the weather. For the moment, it is raining. And though I know that the rain will pass, because it always has, that doesn’t change the very real fact that right now – at this moment – there are huge fat droplets falling from the sky landing on my head making me wet and cold.

When we are wet and cold, sometimes the best thing to do is to get under cover, in front of a nice warm fireplace to dry off. This is what gaming does; it is the roof, while the players are the nice warm fire drying us off. The roof hasn’t stopped it raining, but it has stopped the rain making us wet.

Mental illness isn’t a particularly easy thing to speak about, particularly to those who have never experienced it themselves. The questions that can result when you try are often, “why do you feel this way? How can I fix it? What can I do?” When the answers are, “I don’t know, I just do, it is raining. I don’t know.”

Gaming cuts through that for many who struggle. It is a door with no lock, into a tavern with a raging fire and warm mugs of ale filled with people who won’t ask questions we don’t know the answer to, but are happy to share a plate and a story.

Written by Margaret Walker

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