Stereotypes persist that video games can be detrimental to players’ health. Gamers are often portrayed as couch potatoes who spend their days staring at a screen rather than socializing. It is true that gamers, much like office workers who sit in front of a computer, can struggle with digital eye strain and poor posture. However, some people with disabilities use video games as a life-saving wellness technology.
How video games promote mental well-being
During Covid-19, people in quarantine have turned to video games to relax and socialize. Multiplayer games like Among Us brought friends together to play in a digital space even when those people could not meet in person. With travel plans put on hold, some people turned to games like Animal Crossing to quench their thirst for adventure.
Anita Mortaloni, the Director of Accessibility at Xbox, says that video games have brought the joy of play back into people’s lives during an international pandemic. Mortaloni explains, “The pandemic was hard for a lot of people, but video games let them get out and experience joy. It was a way to escape Covid-19 for a while. It shows the power that play, and community have in people’s lives, even during an international pandemic. Playing video games and connecting with others can be very healing.”
While the pandemic has emphasized these benefits, disabled players have long used video games to create a sense of community and expand their world. 40% of people with disabilities or chronic illnesses may feel isolated, in part because some of these people may have trouble leaving their home to meet with friends. Some of these individuals can find companionship through websites like Can I Play That? an outlet focused on accessible gaming, or supportive gaming communities such as the Xbox Ambassador Program, a community of Xbox players that support and help other gamers. This community includes ambassadors who have and do not have disabilities.
Cerebral Paul is confident that video games have saved his life — literally and figuratively. Without video games, Paul would be missing a vital social outlet in his life: “Being disabled is a lonely experience. But I can have social relationships with my gamer friends from within my house when I’m in front of my computer. Those connections keep me active. Gaming helps me remember that I’m not alone.”
Research indicates that Paul is not the only person who is reaping the benefits of playing video games. A study from the University of Oxford found that people reported feeling happier after they spent time playing Animal Crossing or Plants vs. Zombies, which are two games related to problem solving, resource management, and nature.
How games can inspire us to design accessible technologies
Several decades ago, people might not be able to play video games unless they could physically hold and move a joystick. Now, adaptive controllers, closed captions, and VR sets have opened the world of gaming to all sorts of people with all sorts of bodily needs. Because video games are dynamic forms of media, creators can use a variety of sounds, visuals, and haptic cues to immerse all of a player’s senses.
When Dave Evans from the game studio Falling Squirrel was designing he realized that disabled people were more than just beta testers; they were co-creators. The Vale: Shadow of the Crown is a unique game because it’s designed with audio cues. Players must navigate fights and challenges exclusively through sound. Because video games often feature bright scenery, blind people may feel excluded. Evans made The Vale: Shadow of the Crown because he noticed that blind players deserved to have a wider selection of video games. But Evans soon found out that accessible features can actually make technology better for all users: “I learned that you can make fonts easier to read and controls easier to use. These things are crucial to blind people who don’t have a visual cue, but I just realized that this game works a lot better for everybody.”
When people design accessible video games, players with or without disabilities can have a better experience. Evans recalls watching his son test The Vale: Shadow of the Crown: “I thought he was sleeping. For four hours, he was lying down on the couch with a cordless controller headset. That is a really interesting way to play games. I’m so sick of always looking at a screen during quarantine. The lights can make your eyes hurt. So playing this game with my eyes closed was kind of meditative. I could sit somewhere away from the screen. I could just be in this virtual world for a minute.”
But game creators argue that products and places will never be accessible unless companies invite disabled people to help build them. Techmakers in other industries can learn from video games because these creators often consult with disabled gamers during each stage of the design process. Evans says, “You’re not going to assume what people need from a product before you ask those users. So to make games that are accessible to disabled people, you need to hire disabled people as part of your team. They’re going to be making the game with you.”
How to have a healthier relationship with video games
From apartments to hospitals, video games have potential to improve wellness.
Paul believes that video games may help him train his hand dexterity: “I’ve gone back years later and tried to play a game that I was stuck on, and now I can get through it. I may have matured my thinking, and that maturity may help me get through the games. But I also wonder if my hands are doing something a little better with the controls.” In a study of surgeons, those who played video games demonstrated more spatial awareness and dexterity. Some doctors use video games as a physical therapy tool to help stroke victims recover mobility in their hands and fingers.
Whether you’re a seasoned gamer or a novice, you can use video games to enhance your health in several different ways.
First, consider incorporating video games into your exercise regimen. With VR headsets and body controls, a player can use their entire body to play a game. Some people with certain inflammatory conditions like arthritis may benefit from playing Wii Fit yoga or archery. These video games guide players through slow, gentle movements that can help keep joints open and flexible. Consult with your doctor before you start any new exercise routine.
Second, play multiplayer games in welcoming communities. Cyberbullying is a pervasive problem in some video game circles. Paul remembers these encounters: “some jerks didn’t want me to play, and they’d make fun of me because I couldn’t jump or shoot as good as they could.” To avoid potential harassment, seek out players you already know. Ask your friends if they’d like to play with you online. Otherwise, visit groups of disabled players. Some of these communities advertise their anti-bullying policies. If you encounter hate speech, report those offending players to a moderator.
Third, use video games to appreciate nature. Nature has long been associated with positive health benefits. People who spend time outdoors tend to experience less stress. But many people with disabilities have trouble getting out of their homes, much less taking hikes on nature trails. Playing video games to explore nature advice may sound contradictory; after all, most people play video games inside their homes. But according to psychologists at the University of Waterloo, people felt relaxed after they spent time virtually strolling through a forest scene in the video game Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. After participating in a digital nature walk, these players reported lower heart rates and higher feelings of contentment. Video games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt and Skyrim feature stunning vistas, mountain scenes, and beaches. If you cannot travel to access these nature sites, then playing a video game may be the next best thing. Turn on a story mode setting and luxuriate in virtual forest views and birdsong.
People with disabilities have long used video games to enhance their mental, social, and physical wellness. These disabled innovators can inspire us to rethink video games as being so much more than simple entertainment. When we recognize these health benefits, we can consider the role that video games may play (literally and metaphorically) in our own self-care routines.