Three Veterans and a Hacker: How Gaming Helps Veterans Address Mental Health

Gaming has come a long way throughout the past few decades. While, in years past, parents tried to control their children’s exposure and frequency to gaming, and society as a whole tended to view video games in a negative light, they have recently gained increased popularity not only in pop culture, but also in school systems and workplaces. Today, teachers are being taught to gamify their lessons, and workplaces are encouraged to create “gamified” point systems to motivate employees. 

Gaming is nothing new. In fact, the first game started in a lab in the 1950s, with the first well-known one — “Spacewar!” — gaining popularity in 1962 as the first video game that can be played on multiple computers. These early games were simple simulations more often used as part of dissertations by scientists and researchers who, at the time, sought to showcase what technology can do and will do in the future. They didn’t think about the positive or negative implications of gaming, only that it was something innovative. 

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In today’s world, however, we know that gaming can be a “secret weapon” for helping individuals overcome many mental health issues. Specifically, gaming helps develop complex problem-solving skills, promotes social interaction, and stimulates the mind to improve mental health.

History of gaming and mental health

According to statistics, over half of the US population owns at least one game console. What’s interesting is that gaming isn’t dominated by children (who make up 21%), but by 18-34 year-olds who hold the majority. Interestingly, although, is that 15% of gamers are adults older than 55 years old. Not only that, gamers are nearly half-and-half men and women. 

When asking a person off the street why they play video games, they will likely respond because they enjoy it or because they provide a fun way to spend their free time. Similar to someone who reads romance novels, games help players escape reality for a little while. Still, while there have been countless studies of why video games have negative health implications, some other scientists have been looking into the psychology of gaming and seeking the benefits. 

When thinking about what motivates people, researcher Nick Yee created a framework that attributes to the three components of motivations: achievement, rules and system, and competition. When thinking about games, Yee found that gamers want to be able to advance and reach the end (achievement) while working within the rules and system of the game. At the same time, he found that the need for gamers to be better than themselves or other gamers helps them move towards that end goal. 

With this psychology in mind, it proves to reason that gaming can be beneficial for individuals who struggle with mental illnesses. One of the key components of severe depression or PTSD is the lack of motivation, as these mental illnesses often remove the will to move forward for those suffering from them. 

A reported 280 million people suffer from depression globally — not including those who don’t receive a formal diagnosis. Should that number be taken into consideration, this statistic would increase drastically. Of that number, at least 11% are veterans who report having depression or PTSD. 

The benefits of gaming

There are several benefits of gaming that can serve to benefit those with mental illnesses, but specifically veterans who suffer from anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD.

A necessary escape

Gaming provides an escape from reality, similar to reading. It creates a world that is safe and works within very real constraints in which the gamer is in complete control. 

When veterans return from combat, they often have a hard time adapting to civilian life. Their life on tour was ruled by strict parameters to ensure the highest rate of survival because everyone understood their mission and did their part to complete it. 

When veterans return to civilian life, the same rules are not shared by everyone, which can feel confusing and overwhelming for veterans. Video games offer an escape from that kind of life to help veterans ease into civilian life again. For example, games like Call of Duty provide a space for active military personnel and veterans to live vicariously through a first-hand account of a veteran and their service experience.

Mental stimulation

Taking into consideration Yee’s motivation framework, gaming provides people with the necessary mental stimulation to activate every part of their brains. In doing so, gaming can help veterans with depression and PTSD by forcing them to focus all their attention on the game at hand. Congruently, first-person shooter games force veterans to navigate difficult symptoms of PTSD by immersing them in similar situations, further stimulating their mental responses to the stress.

Makes the world smaller

While playing games helps relieve stress, gaming is also a core component of life for those on active duty. Not only does gaming help them decompress, but it also helps them connect with family and friends in a way that is compatible with their schedules. 

For instance, playing multiplayer and online games helps make the world seem smaller which helps veterans and military personnel not miss home as much as they otherwise would. Additionally, multiplayer or online gaming helps increase social interactions by fostering collaboration and cooperation within low-stakes environments, making it easy to talk to others while feeling safe. 

While the VA provides services to its veterans, those services are frequently not enough of a viable, standalone solution for veterans to receive the comprehensive care they need. But by sharing stories with each other in a safe place with clear rules, where they know that nothing bad will happen to them, they are able to dissect their trauma and understand how to move forward. When it comes to the potential to help veterans and military personnel, the benefits gaming can provide far outweigh any perceived negative implications. 

Nick Donarski is the technical expert behind ORE Sys, LLC, and the inventor of the multi-part ecosystem that is the ORE System comprising the ORE Token, the ORE Forge, and the ORE SDK. He has recently been featured in US News & World Report, Computer World, GameSpace, E-Crypto News, Techbullion, and Disrupt Magazine, as well as quoted by TechTarget about the use of NFTs in the Metaverse, appeared on What the Truck, and was interviewed by Dave Vellante of Silicon Angle on The Cube. Holding multiple certifications including MCSE+S, MCSA+S, MCSE, MCSA, MCP, and CEH, Nick is a cyber security expert and has been a featured speaker at multiple cybersecurity conferences and worked for some of the biggest names in the industry.  He is fluent in numerous programming languages and blockchain technologies including Web3, Ethereum, Polygon, Binance, BSC, and Smart Contract Security and Testing.