The social benefits of gaming have been more widely acknowledged in recent years — plus, seventy-eight percent of gamers believe it actually helps them build relationships — but the general perception of video games isn’t always positive.
In some corners of culture, the long-held stereotype of gamers as socially maladjusted loners still persists. And when the social potential of gaming is acknowledged, it’s still brushed off as an inferior substitution to “real” human connection.
“Online games have been historically portrayed as what people in research call pseudo-communities,” said Dr. Rachel Kowert, the research director of the nonprofit Take This who studies the psychological effects of video games.
“The value of the social connections are assumed to be somehow less than the value of the social connections that we have in face-to-face interactions,” Kowert added. “But if you look at the research, that’s actually not true.”
Benefits of Online Video Gaming
Gamers have many different reasons for playing. Sixty-six percent say they use video games to decompress, while 37 percent say they game to build problem-solving skills. Whatever motivations gamers have, many of them are able to tap into gaming’s benefits.
Video Games Can Boost Social Connection
Along with researchers from Edge Hill University and University of York, Kowert studied more than 700 players of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). The sample ranged from gamers who played as little as one hour per week to those who played 30 or more.
In findings published in 2017, the team found that MMO engagement correlated to a stronger sense of social identity, or how people self-identify based on their affiliation to groups. That social identity then corresponded with higher self-esteem and more social competence and lower levels of loneliness, the researchers found.
“It seemed to be quite a positive thing for the games we surveyed, which were all online multiplayer gamers,” said Dr. Linda Kaye, a senior lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill who specializes in cyberpsychology and co-authored the study.
It was positive both individually and in terms of a broader social connection. “Gamers often report that that common interest in itself can actually build friendships and relationships — so that common focus can be really important socially,” Kaye said.
There’s a growing body of other relevant research as well. Kowert edited a collection called Video Games and Well-Being: Press Start, in which authors incorporate a variety of academic research to explore the psychological benefits, including connectedness, of gaming. The first chapter functions as a travelogue of sorts of recent literature, including studies that showed World of Warcraft players expanding their social networks and evidence that social capital of the gaming variety “is positively related to higher levels of offline social support.”
“Gamers often report that that common interest in itself can actually build friendships and relationships — so that common focus can be really important socially.”
“When talking about how games can be socially valuable, there is a lot of research that specifically found reductions in loneliness and depression, and that it’s particularly valuable for people who are geographically isolated,” Kowert said.
She continued: “Face-to-face relationships and those formed within online gaming communities both provide what we call social capital, which is an all-encompassing term for the social resources that make a friendship a friendship.”
Online, game-rooted friendships “are as real as any offline friendships,” Kowert said, “and they shouldn’t be discredited just because they’re mediated through technology.”
Video Games Can Support Cognitive Skills
If you’ve ever wondered if games like Animal Crossing or Mario Kart can help contribute to cognitive development, the answer is yes.
In a study of 2,217 children published in 2022, researchers found that cognitive performance, specifically in tasks related to memory and response inhibition, was better among children who played video games for around 21 hours a week compared to those who didn’t play any video games.
And according to a 2013 study, video games can help improve problem-solving skills. This is especially true for open-world, mission-based games structured around completing many smaller tasks and puzzles to achieve a greater goal in the game.
Gaming is good for your brain’s gray matter, the outer layer of brain tissue that contributes to motor skills, memory and emotional response. One study from 2015 compared gamers who had reached expert levels in action-based video games with novice players. The researchers found that expert players had increased volumes of gray matter and greater functional connectivity.
Video Games Can Improve Mental Health
It was once common to think that video games weren’t good for your mental health, but that notion is changing too.
A 2014 paper published in Frontiers of Psychology found a link between gaming and improved mental health.
“We propose that video games, by their very nature, have design elements aligned with attributes of well-being, and that playing video games can provide opportunities for flourishing mental health,” the paper’s authors wrote.
People who regularly play video games may experience decreased levels of stress too. A 2009 study found that casual video gaming created changes in brain activity consistent with improved mood and less avoidant behavior.
Video Games and Screen Time for Children
Not all digital interactions are created equal. Some screen time activities may be more fulfilling than others. “Games are unique because they’re different from online social interaction that lacks the element of a shared activity,” Kowert said.
That shared activity — the sense of a common goal or communal competition — fosters friendships in a way that, say scrolling through a newsfeed might not. “Think of it like team sports,” Kowert said. “There’s a difference between playing soccer with friends and having coffee with friends. You’re building camaraderie and close ties.”
That may be a consideration as parents struggle with whether to moderate screen time. Kowert’s advice? In a word: Balance.
“Parents need to give themselves more leeway,” said Kowert, who’s already more skeptical than some about how we frame screen-time concerns. “And there’s no research that has found that screens are inherently negative,” she said.
Indeed, research out of the Oxford Internet Institute has notably cast doubt on several longstanding video-gaming concerns, including the notion of gaming disorder, the idea that violent games promote aggression and the worry that screen time diminishes well-being among young people. There is “little evidence for substantial negative associations between digital-screen engagement ... and adolescent well-being,” researchers wrote.
“Parents need to give themselves more leeway, and there’s no research that has found that screens are inherently negative.”
That study is not without its critics, including psychologist and iGen author Jean Twenge, who found conflicting results using the same data. And the authors themselves admitted “we don’t understand fully the impact of big tech on our society.”
But Kowert, for one, finds the research compelling, so it might be best to fret less, she said. “Give yourself a little bit more flexibility, not only to give yourself time for your own mental well-being, but also to leverage it as an educational tool,” she said.
Also, it comes back to habits, Kaye said by way of a food analogy. “We don’t talk about eating time or food time, but there are many healthy eating behaviors and many unhealthy behaviors,” she said. “So when we talk about screen time generally, it seems a bit nonsensical to not distinguish between healthy and unhealthy.”
No one is confusing Fortnite with edtech, but online social games would seem to have some leg up. “Anything where you’re actively engaging, preferably with other people in a healthy way, is going to be the healthiest kind of screen time behavior,” Kaye added.
How to Get Started with Social Online Video Games
There’s no doubt that video game usage is surging. But are there any online games that are particularly well suited to maximize social engagement? Do any have particularly welcoming communities? And are there any platforms that don’t require hefty console investments?
Steam is one to consider, Kowert said. The online gaming platform doesn’t require a console, holds regular flash sales and includes a chat function that players can use to connect even if they’re not immersed in the same gaming universe. “You don’t have to be playing the same games together, but you still have that feeling of connection and communication,” Kowert said.
There’s always the console in your hand too. “There are many free-to-play mobile games that are also emotionally connecting, games like Words With Friends,” Kowert said. And racing side-scrollers are also a good way to play with either strangers or friends, Kaye said.
“It’s about finding alternative ways of keeping [face-to-face] connections and conversations going, and using more creative virtual ways to do so.”
As for non-mobile games, Kowert points to Minecraft, the beloved, all-ages sandbox bestseller, and Animal Crossing: New Horizons. (One reviewer likened the wholesome, private-island sim to a warm blanket in troubled times.) She also recommends Stardew Valley, the indie-phenom farming simulator, which unveiled a co-op feature in 2018. “If you just want to play with someone who maybe lives on the other side of the city, but you can’t see right now, that’s a good option,” Kowert said.
Of course, simply firing up Fortnite won’t instantaneously transform the those who might feel lonely into online social butterflies. “Some players can be in social environments and still not interact much with others,” said Kaye, pointing to a 2006 research paper that explored the “alone together” phenomenon in MMOs.
But in extremely online times, we might as well try all the help we can get. “It’s about finding alternative ways of keeping [face-to-face] connections and conversations going,” Kaye said, “and using more creative virtual ways to do so.”