After the 2016 election season I was concerned, as many others were, that our country was about to lose ground on a lot of important social issues. I was worried about my friends. I was worried about my family. I was worried about countless marginalized or unrepresented Americans who may face increased discrimination or scrutiny. I donated where I could, made my voice heard to my representatives, and reminded my friends not to normalize the tragically disappointing behavior that appeared to be bubbling to the surface all across the country and in its highest offices. And I tried to make games. But it didn't work.
With a sea change in political climate on the horizon, making games felt unimportant. Unhelpful. Frivolous. What would normally occupy the most satisfying part of my day felt stupid, and I found no joy in it. I got my job done to the best of my ability but I felt like a sellout.
My attention kept being drawn to a book on my shelf. In the introduction to Adrian Shaughnessy's How To Be A Graphic Designer, Without Losing Your Soul, the author makes the case that the creation and enjoyment of art is something with quantifiable cultural benefits, a catalyst of self-expression and self-discovery that has real impact on our well-being. And that we should protect and promote it as a part of a healthy society.
Every single human culture on earth, no matter how civilized or uncivilized, has some kind of art and some kind of play. Self expression and escapism are normal, intuitive, biological mechanisms to help us relieve stress.
Stressful situations prompt the release of Cortisol, the primary stress hormone that, when elevated for prolonged periods of time, destroys healthy muscle and bone, slows down healing and normal cell regeneration, co-opts biochemicals that are needed to make other vital hormones, impairs digestion, metabolism and mental function, interferes with healthy endocrine function, and weakens your immune system. Psychological stress is associated with a greater risk for depression, heart disease, and infectious diseases. In short, stress compromises your health and shortens your life.
Study after study has shown categorically that playing games actually reduces stress. A 2010 Texas A&M study showed that even violent video games allow men and women to grow better skills for handling stress, that they tend to show less symptoms of depression and get less hostile during stressful real world tasks. A 2007 McGill University study showed that games specifically built to train players using positive feedback translated into players having a 17% reduction in Cortisol levels. The list of similar studies goes on and on.
Games inject a sense of wonder and awe and inspiration, of sport and community, of beauty and escapist fiction, into the larger collective consciousness. They can actually tweak our body chemistry, allowing us to be better versions of ourselves. Can games fix the world? Probably not. But perhaps they can enable us to be the healthy, happy, motivated people that can.