The unique power of video games

Christopher Leech watches Gaming and Me: Connections, Identity and Support on BBC Three.

I hover my mouse over the play icon and click, with a sharp intake of breath. I am wary of any interaction between video games and mainstream media. As a lifelong gamer who is beginning a research career in the crossover of psychology and video games, I am all too familiar with the somewhat turbulent relationship between the two.

Fortunately, my fears were unfounded as a timely, open and introspective look at the personal, social and cultural role of video games in 2020 United Kingdom unfolded. The programme focuses on three main protagonists. There’s Abi, 21, from Weston Super-Mare, Joe, 34, from Glasgow, and Elissa from London, at university in Cambridge. The three protagonists each focus on a game that is meaningful to them – The Last of Us Part 2 (Naughty Dog, 2020), Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar, 2013) and Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo, 2020) respectively.

These three stories of gamer and game(s) are interspersed with expert insight and review by industry experts: designers, researchers and commentators from all aspects of the gaming world, bridging the gap between personal experience, and science and experts. There are also interesting interviews with voiced avatars for Elissa and Joe to provide the perspective of their in-game characters.

One refreshing aspect of this documentary was that it deftly handled some of the common difficulties in discussing video games. It openly discusses the fact video games, gamers and all those involved can be subject to stigma. Equally, Gaming and Me does not fall into the pitfalls I was worried about. Instead, it does a great job of dealing with (albeit briefly) the issues around addiction. Andrew Przybylski (Director of Research Oxford Internet Institute) and Kathrine Isbister (Department of Computational Media, University of California) talk about the sometimes-problematic use of games, and the evidence, or rather lack thereof, for games being inherently addictive.

This is a fleeting undertone to the true message of the documentary, which is the uniquely powerful role of video games in people’s lives. Each protagonist plays games for various reasons, finding something incredibly emotive within them. Each explores just how important video games are to them, who they are, the need to connect with others now more than ever, and links to mental health.

If I were to provide one critique it would be that it can appear extreme, as is the case with anything related to fandoms or communities. We see the stories of people who experience and interact with games incredibly deeply. I think that is great – to enjoy something so much, to be part of a wider community outside of the physical game-space is fantastic. Equally though, you can love games and not be a cosplayer, or role-playing enthusiast, play online or even clock that many hours. It is the true joy of games that you can play them however you see fit.

What shines through more than anything else, is for me, one of the best things about video games. Video games are a way to bring people together from anywhere and every walk of life – everyone is welcome. Games provide so much more than an engaging entertainment experience. They allow players and communities to do something they enjoy, while also potentially exploring challenging issues in society. Video games can become a ‘centre of life’ for people. 

My takeaway from the program is this. If there is a gamer in your life, ask them what they’re playing, why they’re playing it, and what they enjoy about it. You do not necessarily need to pick up a controller to join them, but you can continue the discussion, and understand the importance of games.

- Reviewed by Christopher Leech BSc, MSc, current PhD candidate studying psychology and video games at Edge Hill University, and Graduate Member of the British Psychology Society

- Gaming and Me: Connections, Identity and Support is available on BBC iPlayer

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