Games 13.05.2022

How can games improve mental health and wellbeing?

[First posted on Auroch Digital - 12.05.22]

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Week, Auroch Digital take a deep dive into how games can have a positive impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

Junior Business Development Associate at Auroch Digital (and neuroscientist), Jess Rutland, is passionate about discussing real-world issues in relation to games – from climate change to mental health.

Here, Jess takes us on a journey into the mind and how gaming can help wellbeing, boost serotonin and improve our overall mental health.

“Demand for ‘cosy’ and ‘wholesome’ games has soared over the last two years, with games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley bringing this genre to the mainstream over the pandemic.

“With global lockdowns abound, many turned to online games for their daily dose of social interaction as it became critical for everyone to develop and foster tools for interacting online. The most obvious example of this is Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which launched just as COVID-19 cases began to creep and whisperings of lockdowns had started. Released by Nintendo, the game provided many with an outlet to live out their wholesome, sim-self lives and offered people a sense of escapism as they explored an island paradise surrounded by cute fuzzy neighbours. Not only did this game offer a relaxing landscape to explore, but it also became a huge social platform for millions of players to interact with each other and exist in a virtual space together.

“And so, the cosy game became a mental health haven for players around the world – but what is it about this genre that soothes our brains so much? Well, to explore how everything from aesthetic, to gameplay, to audio affects our minds, let’s look at Auroch Digital’s upcoming title: Brewmaster: Beer Brewing Simulator. The game is an authentic, homebrewing simulator where players can design and craft their own beers at their own pace; it’s thematically cosy, adaptable and welcoming.

Environment: We’ve designed this game so that the environment players find themselves surrounded by is a pleasure to be immersed in and is filled with warm colours often associated with the cosiness of autumn – think burnt orange, emerald green and gentle brown tones. The design of this manages to balance being impactful enough for players to want to spend time in the world of Brewmaster, but not so overwhelming that it distracts from the gameplay.

Music: The music chosen for Brewmaster is gentle and has a cadence which repeats in an easy-to-follow rhythm – something cosy games are amazing at using. There’s a huge amount of evidence linked to repetitive music having a calming effect on the brain, as when the rhythm aligns with the oscillation frequencies our brain operates at, it’s shown to improve attention, emotional wellbeing and boost a plethora of other brain functions. If you’ve ever listened to lo-fi music when trying to focus, this is exactly why. In fact, we’re becoming ever more aware of the calming effects repetitive beats can have on our brain, with Google searches – which have been on a steady increase over the past two years – reaching an all-time high in February this year.

UX/UI: Accessibility is a huge key focus for us at Auroch Digital. It’s no surprise that some design decisions meant to improve accessibility for those living with disabilities, such as dyslexic friendly fonts and accessible colour contrasts, also have a soothing impact on people who may be neurotypical in those areas. Whilst it isn’t to say that all accessibility improves all experiences for all people, for Brewmaster we were mindful to use colours which contrast whilst remaining soft to keep a gentler atmosphere for our players.

“There’s also a lot to be said for how players play and how their chosen platform impacts their experience. We’ve found that console players – particularly Nintendo Switch players – are more drawn to ‘cosy’ experiences which is something that continues to inform the directions we go in when porting games. Our people at Auroch Digital began console porting and publishing to support fellow developers in their goals to bring the games players love to new platforms, like The Colonists or Megaquarium. Our porting pillar is something we’re very proud of and want to continue expanding in this direction.

“Of course, for some, how they play a game is irrelevant and it isn’t always ‘wholesome’ or ‘cosy’ games that offer players relaxation – you can often find players seeking their recharge by playing brutal, action-packed games like Call of Duty or Dark Future. These types of games often sit alongside strategy games (such as Mars Horizon) in being so involved and full-on that there’s often no space to think about the areas of life causing stress to players. Often, these games take up maximum cognitive load and exercise our brains in ways that are occupying, rewarding and invigorating – allowing players to come away feeling replenished. There’s also a lot to be said about how these games can be supplementary to mental health management techniques like CBT or DBT which both benefit from using the same dopaminergic reward systems – think about trophies, badges, collectables, unlockable content; all ways players can receive instant gratification from their work.

“At the end of the day, why do we play video games? Above all else, it’s for entertainment and for escapism, but when it comes to wanting to relax and unwind, they can be an incredibly powerful tool to allow us to ‘switch off’ and support our wellbeing. There is no right or wrong game to help players find peace – even if just for an hour or two – as relaxation is entirely subjective, so whilst some of us find designing and talking to adorable animal friends soothing, others prefer to go a few rounds with some zombies to reset their brains after a long day.

“I would say the three key types of games which allow us to recharge and reset are:

  • Games that push for relaxation through the atmosphere they foster – from lo-fi music to cosy colour palettes,
  • Games that have high cognitive demand which might be selected to override negative thoughts or feelings,
  • Games that are delightfully simple and require minimal tactical thinking or planning, allowing us to rely more on muscle memory and less on cognitive demand.

“The games industry can often be on the receiving end of negative press for not only making games that can be seen to be damaging to our mental health (which has been demonstrated by research to be untrue), but also for the culture of working in the industry. Wider conversations are happening to ensure people are supported and not pushed to their limits to deliver games, and it’s only at the beginning of that journey.

“Here at Auroch Digital, the mental health and wellbeing of our people is something we’re incredibly passionate about and take very seriously. We’re so proud to be an anti-crunch studio and work in patterns that suit the wellbeing of our employees – including flexi-time for our people and encouraging paid time off for therapy and counselling sessions. Communication is encouraged, but privacy is always respected – our goal is to foster an environment of trust and transparency and support our people however we can.

“So next time you’re looking for a way to unwind, why not revisit an old favourite and treat yourself to some nostalgia (three of my favourites are Kingdom Hearts 2, Hollow Knight and Pokémon Emerald), discover a new calm cosy game or head into battle for some breathe-easy time. Sit back, relax and recharge.”

Brewmaster: The Beer Brewing Simulator is available to Wishlist now.

Interested in discovering opportunities with Auroch Digital? All current roles are available on the Careers Page.