The word geek is one that has at times been used to shame or ridicule. People who have had a deep love for some aspect of popular, or unpopular, culture have been made to feel lesser due to that love. This has changed for the better in recent years due to the increased popularity and ubiquity of gaming culture within the popular sphere. The image of what it is to be a geek has evolved, and so the deeper question that should be asked is why people play games in such vast numbers. What is it about games that attract people?

The first and most obvious aspect of gaming that is attractive is escapism. Like any story-based or interactive media, gaming allows one to experience whole new worlds from the comfort of one’s own home. This helps people who find themselves in difficult positions, and who need to escape from some facet of their everyday lives to exist in a realm where their actions have a clear and definite effect. Massive open-world role-playing games such as Skyrim and Pillars of Eternity have become popular, in part, for this exact reason. This idea of escapism could obviously, if taken to the extreme, be a very dangerous thing were it not for the clear benefits that gaming provides.

A 2014 study, by the American Psychological Association titled “The Benefits of Playing Video Games”, found that gaming could indeed have major cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social benefits. The study found that shooting games, such as the Halo series, tended to speed up reaction time and cognitive processing and puzzle games, such as Portal, provide boosts to engagement and motivation. Gaming, in general, is a great source of positive emotion, and multiplayer games, like World of Warcraft, improve social skills and promote prosocial behaviour.

People who have had a deep love for some aspect of popular, or unpopular, culture have been made to feel lesser due to that love.

Despite the fact that this study was done on children, these same benefits apply to adults as well. Additionally, in a world where more and more stress is placed on people and where despair is bountiful, games provide hope. For example, Celeste is a game that follows a young girl overcoming a panic disorder, Bastion is about rebuilding oneself and moving past grief, and Stardew Valley encourages community engagement and corporate awareness. The list goes on and on. Games provide entertainment, of course, but they also provide mechanisms by which people are able to acknowledge problems – whether those problems are in the world around them or to do with their own mental health.

This is no truer than when one takes a look at tabletop role-playing games. Using Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) as an example, there are hundreds of articles talking about how the game has impacted people’s lives. Communities have been built around the game, and it has helped many people work through problems, like social anxiety disorder and even depression. Being the hero of one’s own story is massively empowering and engaging and having others in a safe space where extremely sensitive topics can be dealt with care is quite healing.

Geeks around the world have experienced gaming as something that heals and that adds to rich interpersonal and internal relationships. The simplest way of describing what effect gaming has on people comes from Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, who simply says that “games give you a chance to excel”.

Image: Kamogelo Mogapi