If you've clicked the link to read this feature, you're likely doing so from home. Many people have been living their lives at home. Some have been working remotely. Others have been in quarantine, unable to risk leaving the house due to catching the deadly COVID-19 virus. Things have been this way for a long time. In fact, as President Joe Biden reminded everyone on Thursday, this week marks one year since the United States started going under quarantine.
Video games have played a major part in keeping it together through the ongoing pandemic. They've helped people cope, they've provided a distraction, and they've helped encourage people to stay home instead of going out and spreading the virus. A year is a long time, though, and it's fair to ask where people are mentally after being asked to socially distance and quarantine for such a long period.
Nobody at Shacknews is a psychologist. Nobody on our staff is qualified to evaluate anybody's mental state. However, there's one nonprofit whose central mission has been to increase support for mental health within the gaming world. That's why we reached out to Take This Executive Director Eve Crevoshay to discuss the topic of mental health, specifically as we hit the one year mark since individual states began instituting quarantine and stay-at-home orders.
Shacknews: I want to start with a more general, possibly loaded, question. We're more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, but we're approaching the one year anniversary of when states began enforcing quarantine restrictions. Many of those people continue to quarantine. What are the difficulties in maintaining mental health for those who continue to quarantine and what are some ways to combat those hurdles?
Eve Crevoshay, Take This Executive Director: This isn't small, is it? (laughs)
As you say, reaching the year milestone in the pandemic is a tough moment for many of us, especially those of us who are still strictly quarantining. It can be hard to maintain a sense of perspective, or even to remember what we're missing. In work and in life, in general, the best defense is to acknowledge - and probably catalogue - the ways in which things have changed, and to really intentionally think through what that means, because without some thought, it can be easy to lose track of what is different. Last May, one of our clinical contributors, Dr. Sarah Hayes, wrote about the challenges around loneliness and how to address that.
Shacknews: In what ways do you feel gaming has helped people cope with the mental health strain that comes with quarantining?
Crevoshay: This is a great question, and one that Dr. [Rachel] Kowert has answered a couple of times! Here is her great talk from a recent conference on how the narrative around games has shifted because people are recognizing the benefits of these games.
Shacknews: Before diving into games that helped people cope with the pandemic, I want to ask about the unique circumstance of Animal Crossing: New Horizons. In arguably the greatest period of social disconnect in many of our lifetimes, how did Animal Crossing help bridge that social divide many of us were experiencing?
Crevoshay: Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the perfect game to arrive at the start of the pandemic, because it offered us a sense of agency (self-determination), social interaction, and a low-key environment, all in a pretty approachable and widely playable package.
(Editor's note: Here's an exerpt from one of Dr. Kowert's articles on the subject:)
We are finally seeing nuanced discussions of games, highlighting their potential to be tools for positive change. Now I'm not saying their cannot be negative consequences to game play – let's be clear, some people play games maladaptively and it has negative repercussions in their life – but for the vast majority of people this is not the case. For the vast majority of us, as players and researchers – we know that games can be fantastic tools for stress release, creativity, team building, socializing, and just having fun (when did fun not become an important outcome?).
Here's to hoping this line of dialogue remains post pandemic because I think that the pandemic – as awful and terrible as it is – is this shift in the public discourse about video games. The media is long overdue to adopt a narrative that is less moral panic and more scientific truth: video games are fantastic as tools for fun, stress reduction, and social connection (especially in times of physical distancing).
Shacknews: Did you notice any other games that came out during the pandemic that helped people care for their mental well-being?
Crevoshay: What's interesting and wonderful about games is that they fill all different kinds of needs. Some people needed complete distraction (a real coping skill), others needed social interaction, or a way to zone out. Others needed a sense of accomplishment and competency. Different games and game play styles are able to fill these needs for different people. For me, someone who didn't play video games as a kid and never got comfortable with consoles or game controllers, all of my gaming is either on my phone or the Switch (and even the Switch annoys me sometimes). But for others, like my daughter and husband, playing console and Switch games together as a means of connecting has been a major feature of quarantine.
And there were some other major events during quarantine - like the Black Lives Matter movement in the US - that also occupied peoples' lives in ways that games could respond to. In that vein, seeing diversity represented in major new games (Spider-Man: Miles Morales, for example) was a really big deal - even if it remained problematic or incomplete.
Shacknews: As much of a help that gaming can be in regards to maintaining mental health, has the quarantine also led to a greater risk of falling into gaming addiction, especially as more people were at home and may have sought to tune out the rampant negativity that each day in 2020 seemed to bring?
Crevoshay: So, the best new research has really begun to unravel the concept of gaming disorder, or "game addiction" as a primary diagnosis. Dr. Kowert dove into that research recently. While disordered play absolutely existed both before and during quarantine, the best research really doesn't support the idea that addiction to games itself is a thing. We usually game in order to fill a need, and many of these needs are healthy - play, interaction, skill-building, friendship, fun. Can people spend too much time playing games? Absolutely, but that doesn't mean they are "addicted," especially during a pandemic when our options for interaction and fun are so limited.
Shacknews: There's a great connection between video games and social media, whether it be Twitter, Twitch, YouTube, Facebook, etc. And those social media networks, whether it be through random tweets, chat messages, or personal messages, can be incredibly toxic. How much more difficult is it to disconnect from those toxic avenues during a quarantine period?
Crevoshay: So, there's a big difference between saying that social media is always toxic, and that it can be toxic. The latter is a better way to talk about it. Social media is a great way to connect people with similar interests. But online communication, whether it's through social media or in games, has also been found to sometimes become toxic. It can be more difficult to disconnect during this time when online communication is our primary source of communication, but it's also important to note that these spaces also hold a lot of social value for connection and reducing loneliness.
If it feels as if being on social media is becoming harmful to your mental health (and that can be caused by phenomena other than toxicity, like comparisons to the ideal, or the outrage that social media makes easy), then take some time away! You won't lose connections to people who are truly intimate friends just by staying off Twitter for a bit, and you can always invite friends to call you, write letters, or do a private video chat in order to maintain connections while also taking a break from social media more broadly.
Shacknews: I've asked a lot about mental health from the perspective of an able-bodied person. However, there have been many disabled people who cannot leave their homes to this day, to whom contracting COVID would be deadly. What is the best way for them to take care of themselves mentally? Can others do anything to assist them in any way, even as many of them continue to endure long-term isolation?
Crevoshay: So, this is a question you should ask folks with disabilities, not me. There are all sorts of disabilities that have a range of impacts on people, from mobility challenges to chronic health conditions that create higher risk factors for COVID, and those experiences, and needs, will be dramatically different.
Shacknews: I'm not ready to assume we're going back to normal anytime soon. And that sort of leads me to ask, is there a normal to go back to? Do you envision life going back to the way it was or do you feel there will always be a fear of contracting something deadly, whether it be COVID or some disease we don't even know about?
Crevoshay: That is a big question, and one that will probably have a couple of different answers over time - our first "back" will likely be a modified version of what we're experiencing now, and there will be various stages depending on how safe we feel, how much restrictions are eased, and then how we respond to the opportunities and freedoms that appear new to us. First, our sense of safety will take some adjustment. Second, indications are that there will be a period of intense gathering, traveling, and socializing, and then a gradual settling back into more "normal" pre-pandemic life. It'll likely be a bit of a shock to all of us, and so managing and being aware of the changes will be really important. And of course, there will be the knowledge we now have that this could (and likely will) happen again - but now we'll have the knowledge and wisdom of this pandemic to help guide us through the next one.
Shacknews: Lastly, where does Take This go from here? What's on the docket for 2021?
Crevoshay: Oh, this is fun! We are growing, and that's awesome, because it gives us the capacity to create more resources, train more people, and become more of a thought leader in a range of spaces. So, we've started streaming this year and have a ton more content on current research and clinical topics on our website as well. We are also coming out with a video series for content creators on topics that will help them manage their own mental health, as well as talk effectively to their audiences about mental health. We continue to offer a lot of training, workshops, and consulting to game studios and companies to help them support the mental well-being of their employees, as well as speaking at conferences, events, and on streams about mental health.
Be sure to follow the team at Take This, which features regular articles about mental wellness and offers a number of mental health resources. Remember that it's always okay to discuss mental health among family and friends and that nobody needs to endure any sort of internal struggle alone.