Mind Gaming: Exploring the lived experience of player's mental wellbeing

An independent study with recommendations for the games industry

The games industry has enormous potential to act as a source of good mental wellbeing.

Mental health problems are a leading cause of ill-health in the UK. One in six adults in England report experiencing a common mental health problem (like anxiety or depression) in any given week. This unacceptably high level of mental ill-health is our biggest public health challenge.

By tackling risk factors to our mental health and maximising protective factors that enhance it, we can reduce the level and severity of mental health problems and improve our resilience to difficult life events.

We are increasingly recognising that this isn’t just a task for the health sector. More and more, cultural institutions are considering the role they play in shaping social norms and behaviours – particularly brands that customers spend lots of time with.

The games industry has a huge role in reaching people who need to protect their mental health. The industry has enormous potential to act as a source for good in helping to promote mental wellbeing.

What’s more, our study shows that players are expecting the games industry to take action on this. Players are asking you to do more: not because you have to, but because you have the opportunity and power to make a positive difference to their lives.

How gaming impacts mental wellbeing is still an under-researched topic

Around 86% of the UK adult population have played a video game in the past year.

Players are far more diverse than common stereotypes suggest. Half of frequent adult players are women, and more than half are over 30.

Understanding how gaming interacts with mental wellbeing therefore isn’t a niche topic: it’s an important factor in the lives and leisure time of millions of people.

Graphic of video game controller, with the heading 'Mind Gaming'

Better understanding how UK players feel gaming relates to their mental wellbeing

We asked a diverse group of 24 UK players (of console or PC games) aged 18-60 to keep an audio-visual ‘gaming log’.

Over the course of three weeks, players uploaded short clips telling us how they felt before, during, and after playing a game. They also answered additional questions about their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours around gaming. We followed this up with an in-depth interview to understand people’s experiences in more detail. We then looked for trends and patterns in what people shared and pulled together some key themes.

While this can’t tell us if playing games causes or is statistically linked to wellbeing, it can tell us a lot about how players understand their own mental health and wellbeing in relation to gaming, and the different roles that gaming plays in people’s lives.

We also took a closer look at trends in online searches for gaming and mental wellbeing. We explored Google search trends and communities on Twitter and Reddit to see how, and how frequently, people were talking about gaming and mental wellbeing.

Key findings

  • People didn't consciously make a link between gaming and mental wellbeing
  • Change begins with awareness: active reflection via a 'gaming log' helped players better understand the links between their gaming behaviours and their mental wellbeing
  • The UK public isn't commonly searching for information about gaming and mental wellbeing
  • Players felt the games industry could and should play a role in supporting their customers' wellbeing

Exploring the benefits and shadow sides of gaming

1. Vital social connection vs harmful behaviour

Gaming provides players with a unique way to connect with others, greatly benefiting their mental health - but harmful behaviour can threaten this.

2. Meaningful representation in games matters enormously to mental wellbeing

Meaningful representation of various ethnicities, nationalities, genders and sexualities in games had surprisingly powerful links to mental wellbeing.

3. Gaming for reliable stress relief and managing worry

All players, no matter what their mental health needs, used games to distract from worries.

4. Players enjoy the immersion and escapism that comes with gaming…

…but this escapism can also contribute to a loss of control over play that can make players feel worse about themselves.

5. Redefining excessive play

Players commonly said the experience of playing longer than intended had a negative impact on their mental wellbeing.

6. The value of prompted reflection for playing with intention

A key finding of our study was that prompted self-reflection about game play and mental wellbeing improved players’ relationship with gaming.

7. Games are an important source of playfulness for adults, but this can be hampered by guilt and societal stigma

Describing playing games they loved as children prompted warm feelings and memories that improved players’ wellbeing.

Promoting mental wellbeing in the context of gaming

Players had a range of ‘hacks’ to manage their wellbeing while gaming. However, these wellbeing strategies relied on players having awareness of a problem and the motivation, self-control or social support to solve it.

Many of the strategies for healthy gaming are similar to general digital wellbeing strategies.

Games can also play a useful role in educating players about mental health.

There are three channels for supporting players' mental wellbeing:

1. Player-led solutions (individual, bottom up)

The study found some evidence that prompted reflection about game play and mental wellbeing improved players relationship with gaming. However, players didn’t intuitively or spontaneously link their game play behaviours with their mental wellbeing. This suggests an opportunity to promote greater awareness of this link and encourage players to ‘pause and check in’ to reflect on their game play.

2. Games industry-led solutions (top down, structural/infrastructural/cultural)

The potential for the games industry to make an impact is huge. Players felt that games companies could play a significant role in supporting mental wellbeing.

3. Mental health sector-led solutions (social/environmental)

While players described the benefits of gaming to their mental wellbeing, supporting mental wellbeing in the context of gaming is not a substitute for accessible, well-funded mental health support. Players with experience of mental health problems wanted to see more support from established mental health and public health channels.

Players' recommendations to the games industry

Players identified five topics most important to their mental wellbeing:

  1. Meaningful representation and inclusive gaming
  2. Dealing effectively with harmful or abusive players (toxic communities)
  3. Increasing players' awareness of the relationship between mental health and video games
  4. Embedding mental health support and resources within games
  5. Helping players recognise and avoid using games in unhealthy ways

Gaming and mental health

Using funding from Jingle Jam, we conducted an exciting new study exploring the link between video games and mental wellbeing. Find out more about our work exploring gaming and mental health.

Download the full report and recommendations

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