How do young people use video games to cope with loss?

Dr Matthew Spokes and Dr Jack Denham, from York St John University, received funding through the SIGN Collaborative Research Grants scheme to undertake research into video games as grief management and self-care for young people. In this blog, Matt explores the connection between young people’s experiences of the pandemic and gaming.

Recently, the connection between gaming and self-care was highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the shift from a recognisable every-day to a more restricted indoor existence brought this into sharp focus, and Nintendo’s Animal Crossing became a real breakout title for young people especially.

As games researchers working at universities in Yorkshire, it was clear to us in conversations with our students, and in interviews with participants on previous research, that young people’s experiences of the pandemic and gaming were inextricably connected to a sense of loss. The aim of the project then was to better understand how young people managed their experiences of loss during and after the pandemic through gaming, and what lessons might be learned from gamers in terms of their reflections on the types of loss felt during the pandemic.

A video games controller rests on a white table

The project, which involved a collaborative team at York St. John, the University of York, Huddersfield and Hull universities, collected data in two phases during 2021. We started by surveying 450 gamers in the United Kingdom and United States, asking about their gaming habits, the types of games they typically play, their experiences during the pandemic and the ways they used games to help them through difficult experiences. We followed this up with twenty interviews with gamers from Yorkshire and the Humber, during which we asked more focused questions. 

The two-pronged approach enabled us to gather a wide variety of data, and hone in on how gamers use games to support themselves and connect with others, particularly given the physical dislocation so many young people experienced between 2020 and 2022.

A red pixel games character against a yellow bricked background

The data were revealing in three main ways. 

Firstly, the survey helped us understand that young people understood loss in multiple ways. The pandemic wasn’t simply about the loss of loved ones (though this certainly came up in their discussions with the team), but all the other things they had lost in parallel – socialising, work, education. This finding led us to alter our approach in follow-up interviews by expanding our conceptualization of loss and reframing the questions to be broader in scope.

Secondly, we found that participants use games differently to normative expectations of violent play (we’ve explored this in a previous paper). In the interviews, we asked participants to talk to us about the sorts of games they had been playing and why, and we found that our participants had learned some valuable lessons, from understanding historical conflicts to key contemporary social justice issues like racism and misogyny. They hadn’t expected to learn through play, and the games they played had not been designed with specific educational applications in mind, but the combination of the skills they developed through the systems and processes in the games, and their interactions with challenging narratives, enabled them to reflect on how interactive media representations can explore important contemporaneous social issues. This finding reinforces our earlier work, which indicated pro-social values in gamers’ interactions that moved beyond the usual assumptions that engaging with violent games makes you violent. 

Thirdly, we found a variety of ways in which gamers use games to help with their self-care. COVID disrupted social norms, and gamers increasingly managed their separation from others through engagement with their friends online. We also found that games enabled gamers to distract themselves from different types of loss – one participant typified this saying ‘I wasn’t me, grieving in my room. I was Spiderman’ – and, because grief intruded on their lives at unpredictable intervals, immersion in gaming offered a salve.   

These personal reflections on coping with loss happened in the shadow of sizeable societal upheaval and bereavement on a wide scale, and our current work considers how our participants oscillated between different forms of grieving and the restorative potential of moving on from that afterwards. Our participants offered some considered thought on the value of games in this regard, and their ideas about loss and responding to loss echoes much of Stroebe and Schut’s ongoing work using the dual process model of grief (Stroebe and Schut, 2021), whereby participants move between active grieving that disrupts their everyday lives, and productive responses to grief in terms of living with loss.

Ultimately, the areas discussed above are unified by the significance of video games as a sociological apparatus. Our research adds weight to arguments that see games as ‘social sense-making tools, […] spaces for defining and reproducing aspects of the world we might, or might not want’ (Borchard 2015, 453. Emphasis in the original), at a time of considerable change for young people, now further impacted by the rising cost of living.

We’re building on this research in a number of different ways, supported by our Interactive Games Research Group

We’re following up these initial studies with a number of practical gaming workshops – inviting gamers to play a series of different games and reflect on their experiences – to explore the learning potential of gamer-led research, and would be happy to facilitate new workshops in addition to the ones we’re currently running.

We’re also expanding our work around self-care to both deepen and broaden the therapeutic aspect of our research. Knowing that gamers already use games as self-care, how might this contribute to approaches to mental health and counselling for young people, not just in relation to loss and the pandemic, but in response to the ongoing crisis in young people’s mental health? We’ll be collaborating with professionals and academics in youth work, counselling and psychology to better understand how the sociality of games contributes to self-care approaches both in the aftermath of the pandemic and beyond.

If you’d like to get in touch to discuss this work further, are interested in future research collaborations, or hosting a workshop, please contact [email protected] or [email protected]