As it comes to an end, it’s hard not to acknowledge 2021 was only a minor improvement over 2020. Covid-19, worldwide political turmoil, climate catastrophes—all the stresses of the previous year rolled over into the new one. The result was another 12 months that taxed everyone’s mental health and led many of them to seek refuge wherever they could find it, often in video games.
To be sure, I am definitely in this camp. Over the past year, my relationship with gaming changed a lot, morphing from a pastime into something I do to cope. As the parent of an unvaccinated toddler, it’s hard to get out; playing Mass Effect: Legendary Edition or Horizon Zero Dawn is the only chance I have to explore. “Without a doubt, gaming can be beneficial to mental health,” says Megan Connell, a psychologist who specializes in using gaming in therapeutic ways. “Games provide a time for us to unwind and relax. They help us have fun.” But as the year wore on, I struggled with something else: The knowledge that while games have become extremely valuable to me, they are an outlet not everyone has.
This disparity becomes evident every time I look around my home. Not only do I have a recent iPhone and an iPad, but also a Mac, a PlayStation 5, and a Nintendo Switch OLED, and I have access to an Xbox Series X (technically my husband’s). My gaming setup also utilizes a 4K projector with a 120-inch screen, so when I’m gaming, I’m totally immersed. None of this is meant as a brag. It’s just that the longer I’ve been surrounded by my gear, the more I’ve realized that getting mental health benefits from gaming goes hand-in-hand with being able to afford gaming.
Sure, there are ways to play inexpensively—many titles are free, and mobile games are often inexpensive. Subscriptions and sale events can also help ease the financial impact, but that doesn’t change the fact that the barrier to entry for gaming—the cost of consoles, PCs, and other devices—can be very high.
And that assumes you can even get the hardware; the PS5 and latest Xbox are still hard to find, even a year after launch. And the Switch OLED isn’t much easier—I managed to get mine because I was so excited to see one in stock, I purchased it on the spot without even thinking. Many people don’t have the time, resources, or disposable income for this kind of console consumption, especially when you consider the markup on buying a unit secondhand or the expense of trying to build a gaming PC in a time of chip shortages.
Earlier this year, at the end of the summer, I wrote about how much I enjoyed taking my Switch out into the world. It wasn’t that I was so attached to video games that I couldn’t bear to go to the park without them; it was that after months of being cooped up, gaming became a way to ease social anxiety. Playing Mass Effect achieved the same result when I was home. Don’t get me wrong, escaping into games for too long can be detrimental—Connell agrees—but at a time when people need to take breaks where they can get them, gaming has proven vital. The problem is, it’s not a break everyone can catch.
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