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Need a New Way to Escape? Try This.

Back in the early ‘80s, when I was a tiny tot, my sister and I got an Atari 2600 for Christmas. I was overjoyed playing games like “Pac-Man,” “Q*bert,” “Donkey Kong” and “Frogger.” 

I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a gamer these days, but I definitely dabble in video games and used to be an avid gamer. I remember gaming marathons back in the day, spending entire weekends in the early 90s with friends playing role-playing Nintendo games such as “Final Fantasy” and “Dragon Warrior.” 

I was always on a conquest to level up with more HP and magic spells and to defeat enemies to gain enough gold to buy that cool sword or sweet set of armor. 

In my drinking days, I even downloaded the original “Final Fantasy” on my Nintendo Wii and played through the whole game while drinking massive amounts of beer in the latter days of my addiction. I finally beat it. Albeit drunk.

BLASTING THE COMPETITION

This Mental Health Awareness Month got me thinking about the therapeutic value of video games. Right now, in 2021, researchers are finding that playing video games can help with mental health

More than half of Americans have played video games during COVID-19. There was no shame in playing in 2020. And video games have been found to be therapeutic for some during COVID-19 lockdown, according to a new Oxford University study.  The study focused on Nintendo’s popular “Animal Crossing” and “Plants vs. Zombies” by Electronic Arts.

The study found that regular players reported better “wellbeing.” Scientists are even studying the effects of gaming on post-COVID-19-related “brain fog” and cognitive functioning. Games have also been used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Video games have been slaughtering the rest of the entertainment industry for years, with more entertainment dollars being spent on games than on Hollywood films and sports combined. In 2020, video game revenue topped $180 billion, seeing a 20 percent growth, according to International Data Corporation.

On the contrary, Hollywood amassed a total of $42 billion in revenue in 2019, according to The Hollywood Reporter. 

Many of us are playing games on our phones. But lately I’ve been into retro gaming, which is really in vogue right now.

I have a Super Nintendo Classic. It’s like a mini console– for totally ‘90s stuff– already loaded with games. I play “Super Mario World,” “F-Zero,” a futuristic hovercraft racing game and “Street Fighter II” a combat game of world domination. I also have a PlayStation Classic, which is a similar idea loaded with games, but I rarely play it. And I recently bought a PlayStation 2, just so I could play “Tony Hawk Pro Skater,” a skateboarding game that was a college favorite. 

I suppose my Nintendo Wii is retro now, since it came out 15 years ago. I’ve also played a fair amount of Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, mid-2000s mainstays. I was in a relationship with a gaymer, so I played his games.

THE ULTIMATE IN VIDEO GAME THERAPY

There’s one game in particular that was so avant-garde, so different, so groundbreaking, so much better than any other game in the galaxy it wins the prize for most therapeutic. If you can do it, get your hands on “flOw”. 

“flOw” is more of an experience than a game. You are a creature floating in primordial ooze and the concept of the game is to swim your way through this womb-like world, eating other organisms and growing your tail. That’s it. No killing. No real strategy. Just your eyes transfixed in a trance looking at pretty blue hues.

“flOw” is the epitome of soothing. After a rough day at work or a heavy argument or any kind of stress whatsoever, it is exactly what you need.

The most downloaded game on the PlayStation Network store in 2007, “flOw” was also included in a 2010 book titled “1,001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die.”  “flOW” debuted originally for the PS3 console. You can play it if you have a PS3, PS4, or PS5.

PlayStation 5 systems have been regularly sold out everywhere since the console’s debut in November of 2020, with new inventory coming in every few weeks but selling out immediately. Could it be COVID-19? I think so. Seek out a PlayStation just so you can play “flOw.”

BAD RAP

Ever since “World of Warcraft” came out in 2004, the culture of gaming has reached new levels of obsession, as gamers set aside all aspects of life, including sleep, to keep playing and playing.  Video game addiction was recognized as an official disorder by the World Health Organization in 2018.

Games, as represented in the news media and in scientific research, often have negative connotations. In the wake of the massacres at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, parents and lawmakers were quick to blame violent video games as a culprit. Now there’s gaming rehab. 

There are even special programs for example this one and another one for video game addicts. Video game addiction is often compared to gambling addiction in that it affects brain chemistry and dopamine levels.

PURE ESCAPISM

But a 2014 article in American Psychologist points out:

Game designers are wizards of engagement. They have mastered the art of pulling people of all ages into virtual environments, having them work toward meaningful goals, persevere in the face of multiple failures, and celebrate the rare moments of triumph after successfully completing challenging tasks. 

In other words, playing games not only entertains but can accelerate your ambition, teach strategy, and make the gamer feel a sense of accomplishment.

I couldn’t agree more. And I have to say, video games have been a good distraction during COVID-19 and helped elevate my mood. So I can report first-hand that video games can indeed be therapeutic. But as the adage goes, “everything in moderation.” If you follow that saying, you’re good to go. Game on!

Conor Bezane has covered video games for MTV News. His memoir – The Bipolar Addict: Drinks, Drugs, Delirium & Why Sober Is the New Cool is out now on Amazon.

Image via Nintendo’s YouTube channel