Bored and lonely? Researcher says online games can help us socialize safely during the pandemic

Connecting with others over online games can help combat the stress and social isolation of the pandemic - and computer scientist and digital games researcher Regan Mandryk says you don't have to be a gamer to experience the benefits.
Experts believe online games actually promote social connections and meet basic mental health needs as people, confined to home during the COVID-19 pandemic, engage in multiplayer games to maintain a sense of community. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Connecting with others over online games can help combat the stress and social isolation of the pandemic, and digital games researcher Regan Mandryk says you don't have to be a gamer to experience the benefits. 

"When we talk about gaming, there's a whole range of activities you could pursue. People tend to have this stereotypical idea of a 16-year-old boy playing Call of Duty for 12 hours straight in the basement, and that's not really what games are," Mandryk, a professor of computer science at the University of Saskatchewan, told Spark host Nora Young. 

"You can really just sign up on your smartphone, or similar, and see a lot of the benefits."

Regan cites Among Us, an online multiplayer game that became hugely popular during the pandemic, as an example of an activity that people can do together without any experience in gaming.

"It's just really well-designed, and it allows people to connect with each other in a time when it's really hard to connect with others."

The demand for video games and consoles skyrocketed in the spring, as people looked for ways to stay entertained during the first wave of shelter-in-place orders due to COVID-19.

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Online games can provide a greater sense of control over our environment and unity with others, which help us deal with stressful times in our lives, says Mandryk. And games offer unique benefits over other, more passive forms of entertainment.

"A lot of the traditional ways in which we recover from stress — you think about watching a movie or reading a book — they're really good at psychological detachment and relaxation. But they don't really provide us an opportunity to experience mastery or control."

She says gaming also provides an accessible, entertaining alternative to other kinds of online communication that has replaced a lot of face-to-face contact during the pandemic. 

"I think a lot of people are getting this Zoom fatigue situation, in which they don't want to sit in front of the computer, even if it is to talk and have a nice conversation with somebody that's not physically co-present with them," Mandryk said. 

A woman with curly hair gaves down at a laptop.
University of Saskatchewan professor Regan Mandrk says gaming can help reduce stress and improve mental health. (Martin Lipman/NSERC)

A recent Angus Reid study found that the number of Canadians who report suffering from both loneliness and social isolation has increased to 33 per cent, a 10 per cent increase from the previous year. Respondents in the same study reported using technology to stay connected, but most said this kind of socializing is simply "better than nothing." 

Mandryk says that games can offer a more universally accessible way of connecting with others. "When we talk about more traditional ways of interacting with each other, like over video chat, those kinds of things work better for certain types of people," she said. 

"The work that we've done has shown that one of the great things about [multiplayer] games ... is that they create a kind of an equivalence for people, regardless of how outgoing you are, how agreeable you are, how trusting you are in other people."

While adults may find it easier to connect through video conferencing and phone calls, the same cannot be said for children, who connect with each other through play. Mandryk says online games can be particularly beneficial to children as a way to stay social in a time when contact with their peers is limited due to public health restrictions related to the pandemic.

"When you see kids playing Minecraft or Roblox or Fortnite, any of these kinds of games, they're interacting with each other around a central idea of play and games. And it allows them to communicate with each other in a way that they're familiar with, even if they're not able to get out to the park and kick a ball around."

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