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Why Playing Games Is Good for You

Playing has been shown to improve the mental health of adults, but most people stop in childhood. How can we rediscover the benefits of playfulness after the toys have been put away?

BBC Future

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After Federica Pallavicini's father was treated for brain cancer, she wanted to help him with his recovery from the surgery. "I began to look into ways of improving his cognitive health without it being a burden or reminder of his situation," she says. Inspiration came from an unusual source – video games.

Pallavicini has a personal connection with gaming. As a psychologist who studies the applications of virtual reality and video games for mental health and psychological wellbeing at the University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy, she noticed the improvement on her own mental health and lower stress levels after she played Call of Duty (CoD). The first-person shooting game put players into a simulated war, and so is more commonly associated with violence and stress than as a way of improving mental health. Pallavicini, however, says playing became a form of therapy that was highly beneficial in her day-to-day life, and later inspired her career in research. With this in mind, she wondered if play could help her father, too.

Pallavicini had good reason to believe it could. Adults who demonstrate more playful personality traits are more motivated, creative and spontaneous. There have even been links between people with more playful characteristics having lower blood pressure. While less playful people struggle in their leisure time to relax and often feel bored when their minds are not preoccupied, those that are more playfully inclined are aware of new opportunities and open to trying a wider variety of activities.

So, why do most of us stop playing as adults? And how can we learn to play again?

René Proyer, professor of psychology at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany, says that playful adults are those able to frame everyday situations in such a way that they become entertaining and intellectually stimulating. Whether it's an obsession with Candy Crush on the morning commute, playing video games with friends or even sharing a private joke with your partner or colleague, most people are playful, and yet the benefits might go unnoticed or nurtured.

The benefits of playfulness can be embraced again in adulthood, says Proyer, adding that in the same way that you might take part in meditation or exercise, playfulness should be viewed as a skill that can be developed, harnessed and used for mindfulness.


The Call of Duty franchise has attracted adult fans – including celebrities and sports stars – for decades (Credit: Getty Images)

A good place to start is by simply observing. Proyer suggests listing three moments at the end of every day wher something spontaneous happened. It could be a funny interaction with a stranger while getting your coffee or a joke shared with your colleague. This will help you to begin to feel confident in being playful and make you more aware of joy in your everyday life.

“Playfulness should be viewed as a skill that can be developed, harnessed and used for mindfulness” – René Proyer

But Proyer urges people not to be afraid to find fun in something not normally associated with adults. Socially acceptable adult games, like board games for instance, are often accompanied by a list of rules and require a specific environment to be played. This does less to encourage creativity and spontaneous playful behaviour despite the elements of luck and strategy, says Proyer. Sometimes activities like this also involve competition and the related frustration with winning and losing. Essentially, the more unexpected the interaction or activity, the better for experiencing and enhancing your playfulness, he says.

Your enjoyment of play can depend on both your personality and your willingness to be open to new forms of conversation and experiences. Proyer suggests that if you're most playful at home with your partner or family, for example, try using similar conversational techniques with colleagues or more distant friends and observe the results. With the evidence so strongly pointing towards a wide array of social benefits, it can't hurt to look a little harder for those small moments that make a much bigger difference than you might think to both yourself and the people  you interact with.

On the surface, it can appear that most adults do not play as often as they would wish – perhaps, as Proyer suggests, because socially-acceptable adult games are not that fun, and those that are might be seen as embarrassing depending on the activity. But, Sebastian Deterding, professor of digital creativity at the University of York, says that in order for adults to engage in playful activities guilt-free, they can come prepared with socially acceptable "excuses".

He gives the example of The Mindfulness Coloring Book: Anti-Stress Art Therapy for Busy People by Emma Farrarons which aims to make the embarrassing act of adult colouring socially acceptable when associated with the "alibi" of it being therapy for successful people.

However, with the rise of social media in recent decades, the goal posts for what constitutes embarrassing play have been moved. Platforms like Youtube and Twitch in particular are popularising gaming culture. Gaming Youtuber and Twitch streamer Mollie Faux-Wilkins, known as The English Simmer to her audience of over 300,000 subscribers, says that for her, playing The Sims (a life simulation video game) has never been embarrassing and was actually encouraged by her parents from a young age. Playing The Sims, along with the majority of other video games, can be an isolating experience, she says. But with the creation and growth of her channel, she has been welcomed into a global community, making friends from across the world and connecting with like-minded gamers in a playful activity.


The Sims still attracts a large community of adult fans (Credit: Getty Images)

Video games are one of the few forms of adult play therapy that carry less social stigma, says Pallavicini. While some adults might feel the need to hide their playfulness, the market for video games and mobile gaming among adults has boomed in recent years. The global gaming market was valued at $174bn (£128bn) in 2020 and is forecast to be worth $314bn (£231bn) by 2026.

Pallavicini puts the mental health benefits of playing video games down to achieving a state of "flow". She says flow is the "the optimal experience when nothing else matters", and is also experienced by athletes and sports people when they are in the zone. Playing to find the flow state can provide an enjoyable challenge and distraction from mental health issues, she says, meaning the player can work on their wellbeing without feeling pressured to improve.

Faux-Wilkins says that some viewers tune in because they resonate with her personality, while others might come looking to join discussions on the latest game update. The fact that being a YouTuber and online-gamer can be a full-time job addresses the stigma of what could at first be seen as an embarrassing activity for an adult, she says. Along with millions of other online content producers, Faux-Wilkins is using the interest and enjoyment adults find in playing and digital entertainment to create a fulfilling career, and her audience are reaping the benefits that come with engaging with a playful community.

As an adult with responsibilities, pressures and targets, it can be easy to lose sight of those small moments of play in day-to-day life. But these moments make up the most memorable parts of the everyday and the funniest memories of friends and family.

So with all the benefits that come along with it, it's not a stretch to say that making an effort to be a little more playful should be a part of your day. Do you ever think wistfully about your childhood toys and envy that lost feeling of playfulness? Well maybe that feeling never really left you at all – it can be just a little harder to find.

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This post originally appeared on BBC Future and was published February 4, 2022. This article is republished here with permission.

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