How video games can become mind games

Rishi Bijlani, 28, took years to become a professional gamer and at the same time faced a lot of negativity in gambling halls. A loner who has always struggled to socialize and make friends, Bijlani says he faced bullying and racism during online matches. “Anonymity is appealing to those who want to vent their pent up frustration and those who can’t stand defeat,” he says. “You can turn them off as much as you want, but at the end of the day, you can’t deny the fact that your sanity has been affected.” Bijlani is just one of many players dealing with prejudice and stereotypes in the gaming world. And that’s not all. As female gamers also progress in this universe, sexism has also become commonplace in game rooms.

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With gamers experiencing a myriad of mental health issues, the UK-based Mental Health Foundation (MHF) has given five tips for developers to consider maintaining gamers’ mental health.

They understand-

1. Address harmful behaviors and toxic communities

2. Fight discrimination by ensuring there is meaningful inclusion and representation in game design and in the industry

3. Incorporate mental health content into games

4. Educate the gaming community more broadly about mental wellness

5. Help players play more intentionally through design features

Experts share their thoughts on the recommendations and share healthy practices players can follow on a daily basis to maintain their sanity.

Advice on Recommendations

Anubhuti Das, Counseling Psychologist at Department of Mental Health and Behavioral Sciences, Fortis Hospital Mumbai, believes that the recommendations given by the foundation are appropriate and would strategize to eliminate the harmful impact of gambling culture.” moreover, any individual’s mental health depends on their conscience. In Das’ view, the recommendations definitely check for any direct emotional or mental harm to players.” the individual to work for a healthier change.

Dr Pallav Bonerjee, a Delhi-based clinical psychologist and psychotherapist who has worked with gamers, agrees with Das as he believes the MHF recommendations seem to be quite timely and relevant for gamers around the world today. But it’s unclear how effectively these recommendations will be implemented within game developer communities if taken seriously. “I don’t know what kind of checks and balances can be put in place to deter people who might ignore these recommendations. In the absence of specific positive reinforcements to encourage these changes in game development and in the absence of specific negative implications for developers who choose to ignore these suggestions, it can also make these recommendations look good on paper, but with no real impact,” he warns.

The Mental Health Foundation’s recommendations highlight the role developers play in making gaming safer. Incorporating more mental health-related content seems like a great idea, as it will help raise awareness and help players identify their own mental health issues and if there is something they are escaping from.

Understand the issues

With the advent of new technologies, today’s gaming experience is much more immersive and visceral compared to what it was a few years ago. This is good enough to explain why many people today are eager to explore the game and may find it hard to remove themselves from its excitement and distraction.

Bonerjee says he understands the appeal of video games after working with gamers. He describes this attraction by saying: “After a hard day’s work, it can be very tempting to decompress by slipping into the skin of a virtual character on a mission in a distant land engaged in battle, making strategic decisions, rescuing teammates and defeat an enemy. It serves as a mental boost, boosts our mood, and challenges us in various ways by fostering problem-solving skills, creativity, and a sense of accomplishment. He adds that multiplayer formats allow players to chat with their friends, which is an added bonus.”Our daily lives, for the most part, aren’t nearly as dramatic,” he concludes.

In Bonerjee’s view, the problem begins when a person’s designated time for play begins to seep into other areas of their life, and it becomes difficult to disengage. “It is during these periods that an individual may begin to feel dysfunctional or disoriented due to excessive time spent on gambling, and they have ceased to be limited to time-limited recreational and fun activity.” In a bid to dramatically improve in a specific game and thereby generate more social media followers and build self-esteem, a player may mindlessly stay there for long periods of time. “Whenever the goal is not achieved, it can lead to feelings of anxiety and loss of status among friends who also belong to the same gaming community,” says Bonerjee. This could all be a vicious cycle for most impressionable youngsters looking for ways to quickly become popular online. “Poor performances also often lead to toxic banter from other players and viewers, which can exacerbate feelings of failure and incompetence for someone whose self-esteem is already fragile. These could lead to severe emotional trauma and may require active intervention in the form of therapy for depression and anxiety,” he says.

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Understanding Addiction
One of the main causes of gambling addiction is the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Dopamine is released when the brain expects a reward. The brain identifies a certain activity with pleasure, and the mere anticipation of that activity increases dopamine levels leading to addiction. Das explains that the games are designed in a rewarding way, making people want to play for hours at the end. “Online games have become a social platform where players interact with each other. They form an identity different from their real identity. The game platform mainly provides an environment where the person can feel in control, and also feel safe,” she says. Bijlani speaks from the perspective of gamers, saying games become an escape route for those who may be anxious or depressed. “Those who are busy mastering the game also end up detaching themselves from the real world,” he adds. Tanvi Jajoria, Counseling Psychologist, Betterlyf Wellness, agrees with Bijani. “Usually people trying to escape the struggles of real life find gambling to be a source of instant gratification, and for some it even gives them an instant rush of dopamine, which helps them feel a sense of purpose. ‘accomplishment.”

Preventive measures

Consistent with her perspective on the causes of gambling addiction, Jajoria says the first step to preventing or working on mental health issues caused by gambling is recognizing the problems. “If it’s not yet addictive, regulate your game time and work it into your routine like any other hobby. The more you tell yourself not to do something, the more you may want do it,” she said.

Das recommends that gamers practice sleep hygiene by keeping gadgets away from the bed at night, which will help keep them from playing games during sleeping hours. She also says other activities should be included in daily schedules such as exercise, self-care time, meditation, yoga, connecting with pets and loved ones. Das also suggests that players should consider drug therapy and psychotherapy as a treatment route depending on the severity of addiction and mental health status. “Cognitive-behavioral therapy is considered effective in bringing about a significant change in the symptoms of video game addiction,” she observes.

Jajoria advises players to set aside time in their day to play in a way that doesn’t affect their physical or mental health. “Take control in your hand, rather than being controlled by it,” she comments.

Recommendations from Dr. Pallav Bonerjee

  1. Learn how to set time limits while playing: This looks like a simple hack but will go a long way in ensuring the game remains enjoyable and a source of enjoyment.
  2. Avoid violent and gruesome content: Graphics containing violence, aggression or sexual details can stress players, trigger anxiety and desensitize the player. This can lead to low frustration tolerance.
  3. Balance the virtual and real world: Keep in mind that playing for long hours will lead to isolation and loneliness. The ability to balance real life with leisure, of which gambling can be an outlet, will always ensure that it retains its positive impact without harming the player in the long run.

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