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Could Online Gaming be Beneficial for Mental Health?

By Manny Wood.
Fact checked by Wilbur Thompson.

To find out the social dynamics of an online gaming platform and the impact of social support, community engagement, and depression on its development, scientists from the Department of Health Behavior at Texas A&M University carried out the research with colleagues from the University of North Carolina Charlotte and Baylor University.

Scientists managed an extensive examination of interactions and the provision of social support within a virtual gaming community. Engaging in video games has become a regular part of many lives, offering a beloved source of entertainment and stress relief. However, concerns have grown regarding the potential negative consequences of excessive gaming, including feelings of isolation, addictive behaviours, and shifts in mood or behaviour. These detrimental effects could potentially worsen anxiety and depression in certain individuals and even affect their social relationships in various ways.

A recent study published in Sociological Focus contributes to the existing knowledge by emphasizing the importance of social connectivity and support among online gamers. The research was conducted by Dr. Tyler Prochnow and Dr. Megan Patterson from the Department of Health Behavior at Texas A&M University’s School of Public Health, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of North Carolina and Baylor University, Logan Hartnell and M. Renée Umstattd Meyer. The team utilized social network analysis to examine the social structure of an online gaming platform at two different time points. The objective of the study was to assess how social support, community involvement, and depressive symptoms influence social bonds over time.

The research team analyzed a social network comprising members of an online football simulation gaming site, surveying participants at the beginning and end of the game’s season. In this game, players assume the role of a football team’s head coach and compete against other site members over a span of ten months. Members can communicate directly with each other through the platform’s forums, chat features, and direct messaging capabilities.

Prochnow stated that their intention had been to highlight the sense of community and informal relationships formed through those online environments. They emphasized that many individuals experienced a sense of community, support, and comfort through online gaming. Also, it was crucial to measure these connections better and foster them to enhance mental well-being in today’s digital age.

The survey received responses from 37 members at the beginning and 40 members at the end, with 30 members participating in both samples. The researchers collected data on age, gender, and other demographic factors, as well as the number of hours spent by members on the gaming site and playing other video games. Participants also provided information on depressive symptoms and their perceived ability to seek assistance when facing problems. The researchers also requested that members list individuals in real life and on the gaming site whom they engaged with regarding important matters.

Previous studies have discovered correlations between the strength of social networks and depression, as stronger networks provide individuals with more opportunities to seek support. Informal social networks, such as those within online gaming communities, could play a vital role in coping with stressors and seeking formal help for anxiety or depression. This finding, coupled with research indicating that people turn to social networks for assistance during challenging times, adds relevance to this study.

The results of the study demonstrated that social support, sense of community, and depressive symptoms influenced changes in the gaming platform’s social structure over time. The researchers observed that individuals who reported receiving more social support online, as well as those who reported less real-life support, were more inclined to reach out to other members. They also found that communication connections were more likely to form when interactions were reciprocal or transitive (involving three-person groups or clusters). Furthermore, players who spent more time on the site had a higher likelihood of establishing communication ties.

The researchers also discovered that members who reported feeling a stronger sense of community and placing value on their participation in the site were more likely to form communication ties over time. Aside from an increased likelihood of connection, these members might feel more at ease discussing real-life issues. It highlights the significance of a sense of community in online gaming platforms. However, it is important to note that online communities can also have drawbacks, such as the potential for these sites to become echo chambers for political and ideological beliefs.

The study also noted that while members with less real-life support were more likely to form communication ties, those reporting higher levels of depressive symptoms were less likely to initiate communication over time. This finding suggests a need for more formal support systems for individuals experiencing depressive symptoms, including telehealth mental health care options.

The findings of this study further reinforce existing research on the connections between mental health, social support, and online gaming. They emphasize the necessity for additional research to understand the complex relationships within these areas. Further investigation into these dynamics and their interactions could inform interventions aimed at improving social connections and mental well-being, particularly for socially isolated communities and populations facing challenging times, such as the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In conclusion, the study sheds light on the importance of social support and community engagement within online gaming communities. It highlights the potential positive effects of these connections on mental health while also acknowledging the need for caution in managing potential negative consequences. By better understanding the social dynamics of online gaming platforms, researchers and policymakers can work towards creating interventions that foster a sense of community, promote mental well-being, and mitigate the risks associated with excessive gaming.