Research shows that online gaming communities may be vital in supporting young men with mental health issues.

A study published earlier this year by researchers at The University of North Carolina, Texas A&M and Baylor University found that online gaming groups provided the same social support as in-real-life connections.

Research on 40 male gamers who all played the same football game revealed that individuals who reported more depressive symptoms and had less real-life support were around 40 per cent more likely to form and maintain social connections with fellow gamers.

With increased mental health issues reported in young men, there may be alternate pathways to seeking help involving gaming.

Often, traditional masculine norms and expectations can discourage men from seeking mental health help, so using gaming as a tool or platform where men can talk to others with similar interests might be more effective than trying to get them to seek counselling in a formal setting.

Video games can also help people cope with mental health problems like depression and anxiety.

Over 80 per cent of all Australians play some form of video game, according to IGEA’s Australia Plays 2023 report.

Of them, 59 per cent enjoy socialising with others, and 70 per cent play games to improve their mental health.Up to 75 per cent of Australians play video games with others, and 33 per cent make new friends through gaming. Naturally, games are entertaining, ‘fun’, as 93 per cent said, while 90 per cent say they play to destress.

A male gamer in his 30s seen in front of a screen with a headset at home. Photo: Sean Do/Unsplash

Gaming with people you know has benefits

These figures include people who play single-player games, also with many benefits. The focus of the research was on multiplayer gaming.

Neos Kosmos spoke with a cyberpsychology expert, clinical psychologist and associate professor at RMIT University, Dr Vasileios Stavropoulos, about the reported mental health benefits of gaming with others.

He points to evidence that most benefits come from playing with someone you know.

“When we have a classroom of students playing together, this has shown to be positive for the students and the developing individuals.

“If I play with people who I’m not related to at all in my real life, I may be projecting things on them, and they may be projecting things on me, with which none of us identifies and after returning to reality might be more difficult.”

He said it was complex when asked if online friendships are as good as real-world ones.”We call it the ‘rich get richer’ outcome, so those who have a healthy social life benefit from online relationships – and the ‘poor get poorer’ so, those who don’t have a healthy reality-based social life and try to substitute a deficit with online relationships may not have the same benefits.”

A man is playing a video game on his smartphone. Photo: Unsplash

He says it depends mainly on the individual and can go one way or another. Most of those who game online do so with people they have pre-existing relationships with. That is the case with some young Greek Australian men Neos Kosmos spoke to.

Jim, 21, plays online with the friends he made through school and sports.

“We socialise in person and meet up for dinner or coffee. We also play some games together to catch up.”

He says when playing, they “rarely talk about their mental health” but rather what they’ve been up to.

Single player games help, as long as they are not an escape to real-life

When feeling down, single-player games are accessible as an outlet.

“It helps me imagine I’m in the shoes of someone else – being able to immerse myself in something helps me get my eyes off some things.”

George, 24, is an avid gamer, both as a single-player and multiplayer, and he too plays multiplayer with his old high school friends.

A gamer seen in front of a multiscreen hi-tech set-up in a gaming room. Photo: Florian Olivo

“We all work now, so catching up is reserved for weekends, during the week, and some nights on the weekend, we play games,” George says.

“We play to have fun and enjoy our games, but we also have conversations about our lives, work progress, and stuff.

“I play many single-player games, and they can be an escape from life as you get immersed in the world, story and character – more than a movie or TV – probably because you’re controlling it.

“Escapism isn’t always a good thing, especially if one is depressed, Dr Stavropoulos says, adding that escaping digitally isn’t a “panacea”.

He warns that escapism has significantly been correlated with disordered usage for those with depressive symptoms.

“If one uses the online world to augment their real life, he says, is a good thing, but if they do the opposite, to escape reality and live in that “world”, then it’s a problem.

Digital video games can positively and negatively impact users; some, like the game Depression Quest, have been created focusing on mental health

“We need to redirect our thriving game industry and game training courses more towards that direction,” Dr Stavropoulos opines.