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Gaming to have ‘positive impact’ on Middle East mental health, finds new study

A new Oxford University study conducted in the Middle East has found that video games have a positive impact on the mental health of players.

Regular players reported greater “wellbeing” when surveyed by researchers Experts say gaming is set to make a long-term impact on wellbeing in the Middle East This comes after a surge in Arabic-language gaming during the COVID pandemic

Gaming has seen its share of scrutiny and criticism from regulators and misinformed media over the years. From outcry over the violence depicted in games like Mortal Kombat and Grand Theft Auto, to controversial subject matter of a different kind in some other games, gaming has had it rough in its early years. For example, some of the medium’s biggest critics in the West tried to link violent video games with violent acts committed by impressionable teens, even when a study produced as early as 2001 found no link between the two, instead attributing that problematic behavior to mental instability and lacking quality of home life.

Since then, we’ve come quite a long way. Video games are much more mainstream now, and people of all ages have come to enjoy them, be they something as simple as Candy Crush on a smartphone, or something as complex as turn-based strategy game series Civilization. 

Now, with the pandemic leading to more people being stuck at home and entertaining themselves with video games, Oxford University has conducted new research to assess how consumption of this medium is affecting players’ mental health. The study found that players reported a greater state of “wellbeing.”

Video games linked to better mental health
The Oxford University study was conducted in light of streaming service Twitch reporting a surge in Arabic-language viewers during the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing to rising levels of interest across the region. 

The company said that the number of streams in Arabic increased by 95.3% (y-o-y) in March and 109.9% in April. In September, the platform recorded 317,265 Arabic-language viewers, while in October the numbers jumped 30.18% to 413,000. This has contributed to a total of 3.4 million viewers so far this year, with the figures set to rise further during November and December following the launch of the hotly anticipated Playstation 5.

It is now hoped that the combined effects of more players and proven benefits for mental health will result in gaming making a positive impact on wellbeing in the Middle East.

Read: The PS5 and Xbox Series X are already off to a better start than the last console generation

Commenting on the research, Sarmad Ahmad, founder of Bahrain-based mental health platform Saaya Health, said: “This Oxford University research demonstrates that it is often the most unexpected factors impacting mental health and that technology is playing a critical role in wellness across the region.

“Gaming not only strengthens players’ cognitive skills and problem-solving abilities, but it also offers a social opportunity through online multiplayer modes.

“This has been especially critical during the COVID pandemic, enabling those staying at home to maintain a link to the outside world while building on Minecraft, battling monsters on Fortnite, or rooting out enemies in Among Us.

“We expect to see long-term mental health benefits from the Middle East’s gaming boom, and countries across the region will be paying close attention to enabling such positive developments.”

Methodology and one caveat
Oxford University’s study used data from 518 players of “Plants vs. Zombies” and 2,756 players of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons”. Developers shared anonymous data about playing habits, and researchers surveyed the gamers separately about their wellbeing.

It is worthy of note that these two games are bit more mild than more hardcore games that feature cutting-edge graphics, intense or graphic violence and complex themes like The Last of Us 2. Animal Crossing is a cartoonish farming simulator that’s popular for being quite the calming game, while Plants vs. Zombies is a tower defense game with a cartoonish aesthetic. While a bit more intense than Animal Crossing, it’s still quite tame compared to a game like Doom: Eternal or Red Dead Redemption 2. 

According to a recent white paper from Chinese tech company Tencent and PUBG Mobile – one of the region’s most popular mobile games – the MENA gaming market will be worth some US $6 billion by 2021, up from US $4.8 billion in 2019. 

In the Middle East, GCC nations are seeking to woo game developers with dedicated digital policies and access to advanced digital infrastructure.

In Bahrain, international and local game developers and gamers can benefit from Amazon Web Services’ first data centre region in the Middle East and Africa – and develop bespoke products for the 400 million plus consumers across the Arabic-speaking MENA market.

Read: GCC gaming market expected to hit $821 million by 2021