Nintendo switch controllers point at a TV in a dark room.
Photo by @elhexpress/Unsplash

From what we know about gaming and social isolation, the longer we’re locked up and button mashing, the more likely we’ll experience long-term health consequences. While playing video games during quarantine is the obvious answer to mitigating some of quarantine’s worst effects, it needs to be done in moderation.

But why?

What Are the Effects of Quarantine?

Human beings have three main psychological needs: autonomy (free will and a sense of self-authenticity), relatedness (the positive feelings generated by meaningful connections with others), and competence (effectiveness and mastery). When these needs aren’t met, our satisfaction with life suffers even when other needs like basic income, sufficient food, shelter, and safety are met.

It’s not hard to see how quarantine frustrates these three needs. Being stuck inside impacts autonomy, creating a sense of pressure and conflict. Separation from our in-person relationships impacts relatedness, causing loneliness and alienation. And if we can’t prove our competence or feel our skills grow through work, our hobbies, or other meaningful action, how else are we to feel but helpless?

During the 2003 SARS outbreak in Canada, 88% of quarantined survey participants reported feeling more stress than usual. Another study found people feeling isolated, lonely, depressed, anxious, bored, and unable to sleep.

And all that during a relatively limited pandemic of only 8,098 infections—compare that to COVID-19’s more than 5 million.

Stress, even in the short term, takes its toll. A 2017 compilation of more than 12 studies found that children who spend less time outside have impaired memory, social skills, self-discipline, resilience, and are more likely to exhibit symptoms of ADHD.

These symptoms are not short term, and we should be worried about them now that we’re all spending less time outside. 

Why Are We Playing More Video Games During Quarantine?

Given that the number one factor making quarantine compliance difficult is boredom, the entertainment sector has been quick to offer up solutions. The video game industry, in particular, has been wildly successful.  

The majority of publicly traded gaming companies are performing better than they were in January of 2020, including Nintendo, Electronic Arts, Rockstar, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, and Capcom. The broader gaming market managed to completely outperform the larger economy, providing investors with a 13.5% 12-month return as of March 19th, 2020.

The S&P in that same timeframe returned -12.6%.

Despite hardware production sinking due to manufacturing limitations, the NPD Group reported software sales up 34% from 2019, and video game hardware up 63%. Animal Crossing, already a highly anticipated game, outstripped expectations and sold more units than its five previous titles combined. Some games, like the exercise game Ring Fit Adventure, have been completely sold out everywhere.

That is to say, people are turning to gaming for stress relief. Moreover, that’s not such a bad thing—even the World Health Organization agrees. We use entertainment to make ourselves feel better. In doing so, we experience a bit of autonomy, relatedness, and competence when those things are impaired in “real” life. Playing video games actively regulates negative quarantine effects. Staying inside to play even encourages quarantine compliance.

So what’s the catch?

What’s the Downside of Quarantine Gaming?

I won’t insult you by saying video games are a tool of the devil. Outside of emotional benefits, research has shown video games pack quite a beneficial punch.

Nonetheless, we shouldn’t embrace them without concern.

While video games can mediate our psychological needs, the problem is that quarantine impairs the ability to moderate video game usage—something that’s already a challenge. More than 30% of gamers globally report that gaming has caused them to miss an important daily activity.

Under lockdown, going from a casual habit to problematic pastime (be you seasoned gamer or newbie) is ludicrously easy. Indeed, the recipe for unhealthy use only has three ingredients: high frequency, unchanging context, and satisfaction.

Simply put, just because we’re gaming for good reason now doesn’t mean we’ll escape long-term consequences later.

This is because prolonged gaming compels us to bow out of social opportunities, neglect the people and events around us, skip showers, and even miss work. In fact, all of these were reported in a survey of people who primarily self-identified as casual gamers.

I fell into this trap as thoughtlessly as anyone: in the first 40 days after its release, I was shocked to discover I’d played over 165 hours of Animal Crossing. To clarify, that’s an average of 4 hours a day. I guess I was burying my head in the digital sand.

How Can We Balance Quarantine Gaming?

Gaming companies have been historically reluctant to admit the negative effects of too much gaming, while cherry-picking research that says gaming in general is innocuous. This, even as many mobile and console developers promote backlash-ridden microtransactions and underage gambling.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the percentage of gamers with problematic use tendencies was a sliver of what it is now. However, we can expect the quarantine to feed this sliver, as research shows that social isolation and dangerous gaming habits exacerbate each other over time.

But what can we do about it when we have to stay home?

Our response should be two-tiered.

First, it’s more important than ever to hold ourselves and each other accountable for not only video game use, but screen use in general. In addition to the other changes we’ve been forced to make to survive quarantine, as cliché as it sounds, we need to aggressively replace screen time with screenless time.

Second, consumers and industry leaders need to acknowledge the nuanced effects of video games, both good and bad, and shape the conversation appropriately. If they’re responsible, perhaps the gaming industry will finally follow smartphones and include digital wellness features in their next-gen consoles.

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