British Columbia

Making friends with Fortnite: Can some video games help us socialize?

Maybe the Canucks aren't allowed to play, but there's a relatively healthy amount of playtime when it comes to social video games, says one expert.

Not all games are created equal — and that should affect how you manage screen time, says parenting expert

Maybe they're not healthy, but multiplayer games could have some social benefits. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Canucks might not be allowed to relax with video games on the road, but one psychologist says there's no need to ban screen time entirely.

Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist and associate professor at UBC, says multiplayer games can lead to a certain level of social satisfaction.

"It's alright to have pizza and pop on a Friday night," she told CBC Radio's BC Today host Michelle Eliot, likening one's technology consumption to diet.

Like occasional junk food, only playing a first-person shooter game a couple times a week won't do much harm. And not all virtual activities are completely unhealthy, she says.

"Fortnite is a bit like nachos," she said of the popular game, in which sometimes dozens of players are parachuted onto an island and need to build defences to survive.

"There is social connection, although it's not as good as real social connection — you know, eye contact and human faces and bonding. Those are very good for our mind."

Socializing with esports

Michael Medley, founder of the UBC eSports Association, agrees that video games can enforce social bonding.

"Games like Fortnite are a cultural phenomenon," he said. "It becomes a social activity you do with your friends."

Fortnite, an online multiplayer game, compares to other esports such as World of Warcraft or DOTA, where talking and plotting with other players is essential to winning.

Medley thinks banning a child — or an entire hockey team — from playing esports outright is a little harsh.

"From the perspective of a coach I get the rationale behind wanting to control how much time players spend by themselves," he said. 

But Medley, who is also a swimming coach, says video games offer a needed break from intensive athletic training or a way to unwind at the end of the day, much like "going to bed with a book."

Medley notes that some of his best childhood memories are of playing games, virtual or otherwise, with his pals. 

"If you're spending time with a friend, does it matter what the activity is?" 

Mental 'superfood'

Kang believes the type of activity does matter to the brain — and video games, however social, can't compete with face-to-face interaction and exercise.

She says sitting in front of a screen doesn't please the brain, which evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment.

"We were outside in nature, moving our bodies and looking at each other in groups with a tight level of bonding," she said.

Kang also pointed out the addictive nature of games, which was recognized by the World Health Organization earlier this year. 

But real-life sports lend more mental benefits, releasing more dopamine and other neurochemicals necessary for psychological health.

  "I'm not saying all video games are bad," Kang said. "But if we go to the superfood, the team sport outdoors would be considered better for the brain than that video game inside."

With files from CBC Radio's BC Today