Video games have long been a popular form of play and recreation – but might they also hold a key to wellbeing?

Contrary to conventional wisdom, mounting evidence, including studies by researchers at Iowa State University and Radboud University, indicates that gaming can foster traits like creativity and has the potential to play a positive role in boosting our mental and behavioral health. These are vital benefits at any time, but particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has frayed social bonds, increased feelings of isolation and loneliness, and exacerbated fear and stress.

That’s good news for the large – and growing – gaming community. In the United States alone, 244 million people play video games at least some of the time – a 15% increase since 2018 – and as people look for ways to fend off stress, anxiety and loneliness in the wake of the pandemic, they’re spending more time playing than ever before.

This heightened usage and exceptional need we are facing offer game developers a unique opportunity to create games specifically aimed at promoting the wellbeing of their users. As the potential and popularity of gaming for wellness grows, developers should increasingly look to harness this power in several distinct gaming categories to offer improved social connection and soft skills and better emotional and behavioral resilience – not only as ancillary byproducts of playing, but as the “name of the game” itself.

Reaping the Benefits of Gaming and Wellness

In a survey conducted by Joy Ventures in October 2020, more than 50% of 112 respondents said they are playing games to relieve stress and anxiety or boost cognitive performance, and more than 45% said they are seeking to develop strategic thinking and soft skills, boost physical health or add new social connections. According to the survey, more than 45% of gamers report feeling better after playing. And according to Facebook data, 53% of people worldwide – including 72% of 18- to 24-year-olds – have downloaded a game for free just to play in multiplayer mode, underscoring just how many people are finding social connection and community in gaming.

Likewise, during this exceptionally challenging year, more and more people have been turning to technology-based wellbeing solutions for similar reasons – from mindfulness apps to wearables that collect biofeedback data, and beyond. Already a $4.5 trillion market in 2018, according to the Global Wellness Institute, the global wellbeing industry is entering a new chapter as the world embarks on a new normal.

Look for these two trends – gaming and wellbeing technologies – to begin converging.

Fostering Creativity and Friendship

Indeed, many companies are already incorporating social connection components into their games. Take the Danish startup BetaDwarf, which developed the famed Minion Masters and raised $6.6 million in 2019 to advance its mission of building more multiplayer “friendshipping games” which are characterized by cooperative and reciprocal playing experiences. In recognizing that heart-to-heart discussions create a sense of bonding between players, BetaDwarf aims to foster algorithm-aided bonding between pairs of players.

Boosting Soft Skills

Developers are also looking to games to help inculcate so-called “soft skills” like adaptability, collaboration, communication, creativity and persuasion, which are vital to success in both the workplace and everyday life. And these skills are likely to become even more essential in a world where automation and digitization are reshaping the nature of work and society.

Skillprint, a gaming company based in Oakland, California, is an innovative, emerging player in this growing market. Through games, quizzes, and interactive stories, the company aims to help players “unlock their strengths” with personalized, artificial intelligence-based assessments of their cognitive skills, personalities, and values. Armed with these insights, Skillprint looks to help users identify their optimal learning and career pathways.

Building Emotional Resilience

Gaming is also showing great promise for enhancing emotional coping mechanisms. Fueled by scientific research, game developers have an opportunity to help both adults and children learn to address stress and other challenges in a healthy way.

For example, PlayNice, co-founded by developmental psychologist Dr. Isabela Granic of Radboud University and healthcare technology entrepreneur Evan Hirsch, demonstrates what’s possible when gaming companies follow a science-backed approach to promote emotional wellness – in this case, to reduce childhood anxiety.

With input from both psychologists and children, the company developed MindLight, in which players are exposed to seemingly threatening stimuli (like feline-type “monsters”) and are rewarded for “decloaking” each menace and turning them into non-threatening objects. The game, which is not yet commercially available, is played with a sensor-equipped headset that measures players’ anxiety levels. Four randomized control trials found that playing the game reduced players’ anxiety by half, demonstrating as much effectiveness as cognitive behavioral therapy.

Posing both a unique opportunity and challenge for game developers, the merging of gaming and wellbeing will increasingly provide millions of players around the world with new tools for establishing social connections and soft skills, alleviating stress and isolation, building resilience, and overcoming challenges.

Look for a variety of other new companies dedicated to harnessing validated, empirical research to improve wellbeing in fun, engaging, and interactive ways to emerge as well. Games which deliver tangible results in a fun-wrapped package can offer a unique advantage to companies in the wellbeing market, where user engagement and retention are often challenging.

Game on.

Sabrina Kestenbaum

Sabrina is the Marketing Director at Joy Ventures. She leads Joy’s marketing and communication strategy and ecosystem programs, and works with portfolio companies across key areas to support their growth. 

Before joining Joy Ventures, Sabrina was the Government & Cities Program Manager at SOSA, where she oversaw innovation partnerships with countries and cities such as Australia, Cologne and the Basque Country, and led the business development of the program. Prior to this role, she served as SOSA’s Innovation Ecosystem Manager and was responsible for growing SOSA’s presence in the tech ecosystem, overseeing weekly industry events and programming, and working directly with SOSA’s 50+ VC clients on their marketing and ecosystem outreach strategy.

Sabrina holds a Bachelor of Arts, cum laude, in Communications and Film & Media Studies, from Northwestern University.