The Psychology of Play: How Gaming Communities Impact Mental Well-Being

May 28, 2024

Over the past few decades, there’s been a lot of talk and speculation about how gaming can negatively affect players’ health.

But over the years studies have also shown that games can play a positive and needed role in people’s lives — research that’s less often discussed but no less powerful. A 2013 study by the American Psychological Association found that playing video games can help boost learning, health and social skills in children. Video gaming has been linked to increased brain plasticity and memory retention. And it’s not just digital gaming that has its pros: Playing board games has also been connected to positive health impacts, including improved cognitive impairment and mental health. Expand the scope beyond the individual gamer, and the benefits are more profound. A 2023 study out of Texas A&M School of Public Health showed that involvement in gaming communities can positively impact the mental well-being of players, especially younger men dealing with social isolation and mental illness.

As we prepare for Bash for Mental Health, our annual fundraiser featuring retro arcade games and stellar entertainment (like Flip Phone!), we wanted to learn more about the positive impact that gaming — and, particularly, gaming communities — can have on mental well-being from someone who knows these benefits all too well: Misha Grauberger (he/ they) of 2DCon, a non-profit gaming event organization that supports both video and tabletop gaming communities. 

Community is something that Misha has always wanted, “Even if I haven’t always had it.” He spent time in and out of foster and group homes while growing up in Iowa and ultimately found a home within the theater community as a stage manager. He moved to Minnesota in March 2020, “the worst timing in the world,” and found another welcoming community through their new church, as well as with a Dungeons and Dragons group that formed a few months after Misha arrived in Minnesota, during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It became a friend group right at a turning point in my life,” he told us. Gaming on an individual level has also helped Misha manage their mental health throughout the years, whether through teaching him how to practice patience while tackling an especially difficult level or with anger management when facing a seemingly unbeatable IRL task. 

“When I was dealing with more severe, chronic, daily suicidal ideation, I was able to use gaming as a here-and-now, ‘I need to distract myself, I am in active crisis’ kind of thing,” Misha told us. “I was able to pour myself into [a game] to keep myself safe. Gaming can be there as ‘life’s okay, and I’m gonna use gaming as something that brings me joy,’ but it can also be a survival tool. Being able to pull out a handheld gaming device when I’m in a place where I feel like I’m in crisis and play something that I feel excited about and that lets me focus on it … it was literally life-saving.”

Misha’s gaming community expanded when he attended 2D Con in 2021. “That was my first time meeting any of these people [in real life], and I’m like, ‘Oh, I just found my people.’ I just felt so at home in this community. I felt so welcome.”

Misha is now a volunteer for 2D Con, one of this year’s Bash for Mental Health sponsorship partners. For him and for other 2D Con volunteers, gaming is inherently community-based and community-focused, and a partnership with our organization felt like a natural fit given the positive role that this kind of supportive community can have on mental health. 

“Mental health is something that has touched everyone,” Misha said. “There’s one degree of separation between you and mental illness, even if you’re somehow completely mentally healthy.”

Through his volunteer work with 2D Con, Misha is able to use their professional skills and personal experience with physical and mental illness and disabilities to support his passion for the gaming community. This passion is how he first came across Guild, before our 2023 Bash for Mental Health event.

“I saw a Facebook post for Bash, and I was like, ‘A mental health gaming event? This sounds interesting! Let me look into this.” Misha soon connected with our staff, and 2D Con’s team ended up tabling and volunteering at last year’s event. We’re thrilled to have them officially partnering with us for 2024 — an excitement that goes both ways. 

“We love to trade a partnership for a partnership,” Misha told us. “The way we see it is we very much want to be intertwined. 2D Con very much values community and values mental wellness and people taking care of themselves. We are working together in so many ways. We’re helping you guys at Bash, and you’re tabling with us, but we’re also doing mental health-focused panels and promoting Guild. And we’re excited to be partnering with a local nonprofit. From my personal opinion, it’s really important to give back to the community that our con is based in. Raising money in support of Guild directly affects people who attend our con, and who volunteer and work for our con. ”

Misha hopes that their organization’s partnership with Guild leads to continued awareness within the gaming community about the importance of mental well-being and self-care.

“I think people have recognized a lot of the unhealthy patterns of stereotypes in gaming, especially video gaming, and I feel like people are already a bit more conscious about what mental wellness requires,” they told us. “One thing that can lead to unhealthy habits is an unhealthy view of one’s self, an unhealthy view of, ‘I don’t want to take care of myself. Why would I?’ So community is a big thing. There’s only so much you can do to give yourself value. You need community support, too.”

You can learn more about 2D Con by visiting their website. They’ll also have a table at Bash for Mental Health 2024, happening Saturday, July 13, 2024 beginning at 6:30 PM at CHS Field in St. Paul. Get your tickets now to join us, and 2D Con, for a fun night of retro arcade games, food, drinks and friends! 

Supportive communities built around shared interests, like the one Misha and the rest of the 2D Con team continue to build for gamers, give us a lot of hope. We applaud 2D Con’s work and look forward to having them at this year’s Bash!