Turning on your gaming console at the end of a long day may feel like stress relief, but can video games also cause depression?
When people think of the consequences of video games, they often think specifically of video game violence. Is it affecting children? And if so, what’s too much?
In truth, the world of video games is vast. Violent games make up a small portion of what’s available. Puzzle, adventure, survival, and exploration games all have large followings.
Whatyou play may not be as important as how intensely you play. But can playing video games really cause depression?
Video games can impact your mental health in both positive and negative ways.
When you pick up that controller or log into your gaming system, game selection is just a small factor in the overall gaming experience.
Your current mindset, how long or intensely you play, and why you play are all factors contributing to how a video game affects you.
According to a 2019 survey of people who play video games, approximately 80% responded that gaming provides them with mental stimulation, relaxation, and stress relief.
Gaming and the brain
Excessive gaming, also referred to as problematic gaming, is commonly associated with adverse mental health outcomes.
It’s a level of gaming characterized by an abundance of time spent in-game, often at the expense of other basic life necessities, like eating, sleeping, or using the bathroom.
One systematic review from 2017 links excessive gaming to psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), particularly in young adults and adults.
But it’s important to note that a link doesn’t necessarily mean gaming causes these things.
People living with certain mental health conditions may also gravitate toward introverted activities like gaming.
And there’s evidence that playing video games can be good for you.
In another 2017 systematic review on gaming and the brain, findings suggested that playing video games creates several functional and structural changes in the brain, including alterations to neural reward pathways and heightened visuospatial thinking.
Research hasn’t established a direct cause-and-effect relationship between gaming and depression, but gaming and depression can overlap.
Internet gaming disorder
Internet gaming disorder (IGD) is a diagnosis included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR).
Though it’s a recognized mental health condition, the inclusion of IGD in the DSM-5-TR is still heavily debated, as some experts believe that it’s a condition with features similar to addictive disorders.
As in other substance use conditions, gaming in IGD may trigger your brain’s reward system, creating a cycle of addictive behaviors.
IGD also often occurs with depression, hostility, and social anxiety.
The use of virtual worlds to escape is aptly called escapism, which has links to both positive and negative psychological outcomes.
Like many things, too much escapism can become problematic. Data from a 2021 meta-analysis suggested that excessive escapism can lead to depression and addictive gaming behaviors.
One 2021 study involving a sample of 457 Chinese players from a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game suggested that playing with a social network online can fulfill a human need for support and affiliation.
It can build lasting relationships and fill social gaps that may exist in the offline world.
But social belonging can become problematic when a game provides a sense of fulfillment that encourages excessive gaming, or IGD, which may have links to depression.
Negative social engagement
Not all online interactions are supportive. Some gaming environments may subject you to more open negativity and confrontation than others.
There may also be pressure to perform within a team dynamic. Failure to meet your expectations — or those of your teammates — can create the same negative feelings as letting someone down in the offline world.
Excessive screen time
There’s also evidence that too much screen time can profoundly impact your mental health.
A 2017 report on two national surveys of U.S. teens suggested that the more time teenagers spend looking at electronic devices, the more likely they are to experience depression or suicidal ideation.
While “screen time” can involve television and smartphone use, it also applies to the world of video gaming.
Gaming isn’t all gore and conflict, but even when it contains those elements, you may still benefit from gaming time.
Depression and anxiety relief
Casual gaming, which involves playing in short bursts of time, may have the opposite effect of excessive gaming and help with depression and anxiety.
According to a 2020 systematic review, easy-to-use, casual video games offer a fun mood boost that can be beneficial for mental health, particularly in relation to anxiety, depression, and low mood.
A review of studies from 2021 links 10 and 90 minutes of activity-based video gaming per day to positive mental health, improved self-esteem, increased energy expenditure, and improved physical activity.
Findings from a 2018 systematic review suggested that playing action and puzzle videos games may help train your brain in emotional skills and areas of cognition, such as:
- reaction time
- mental spatial rotation
The following tips can help you safeguard your mental health while continuing to enjoy your favorite hobby:
- getting plenty of quality sleep
- taking regular breaks
- not neglecting basic needs, like eating
- keeping online interactions positive
- offering consideration when loved ones express concern about time spent gaming
- participating in other non-gaming activities you enjoy
- cultivating additional stress-relief strategies, like exercise or meditation
- assessing how you feel during and when you’re not playing video games
- staying social with offline family and friends
- setting alarms for scheduled offline time
- limiting electronic screen time
If gaming interferes with your relationships or impairs your daily function, speaking with a mental health professional may be helpful.
In addition to exploring internet gaming addiction and the impact games have on your life, a professional can help you manage symptoms of depression and other mental health disorders.
Video games are a gratifying source of entertainment for many people. Gaming is an interactive experience that can positively and negatively affect mental health.
While there’s no direct cause-and-effect relationship between video games and depression, research does support an association.
How long you play games, who you play with, and why you reach for games are all factors that can influence the role gaming has on your mental health.