Are videogames good for relationships?

Opinion
December 30, 2015 by Sharang Biswas

Videogames are often villified by the press, but can they actually help you and your significant other(s)?

I’ve always found it fun to play games with my boyfriends/flings/it’s-complicateds. Plus, it’s winter where I’m writing from and I hear that’s prime season for cuddling? Also something do with meeting friends-of-friends under mistletoe? Regardless, I thought it would be fun to talk about how playing games together can strengthen relationships.

Of course someone’s written something about this before, was my first thought, so I went to do some preliminary research using good ol’ Google.  Except that “playing videogames with your partner” yielded, for the most part, results such as these: “Boyfriend or Husband Addicted to Videogames?”, “10 Things To Do While Your Boyfriend Plays Videogames”, “Get Your Girlfriend to Play Videogames”, and the plaintive “How do I convince my wife to be okay with me playing videogames?” I even managed to stumble upon the alarmist “Game Over: How Playing Videogames Can Be a Form of Cheating” tucked under the “Infidelity Advice” section of an online women’s magazine.

I was like, really? While I’m glad that the zeitgeist has shifted enough to give the stereotypical gamer a girlfriend or wife, I was miffed that the majority of writing that came up seemed to suggest (in addition to the fact that all gamers were straight men with non-gamer girlfriends) that an appreciation of videogames must be a polarizing force in relationships; that a gaming hobby must either must either be stoically endured by one’s partner or surreptitiously  introduced into their psyche, like arsenic in soup. To be fair, some of the articles I found did have positive things to contribute, but on the whole, the underlying assumption was that gaming is toxic to relationships, and must be managed with extreme care.

First off, I’m not saying that videogame addiction isn’t a real problem. It certainly is and can have harmful consequences for both the gamer and their friends and family. However, it’s important to remember, as a post on Psychology Today puts it, “people become dependent on videogames for the same reason that they can become dependent on any other problem behavior such as gambling or using recreational drugs.” While videogame addiction is a serious issue, games themselves aren’t necessarily the direct cause of addiction (which itself is a word too often thrown around lightly).  And remember, it’s healthy for people to have hobbies: if it’s just that you can’t stand videogames and are upset that your partner is into them, then you need a serious talk with your partner.

But there’s more to it than that. Personally, I think playing videogames with your partner can actually help your relationship. I’m not talking about meeting new people during a LoL match, or finding love through WoW, I mean actually strengthening your existing relationships by gaming together. 

In a review of videogame literature published in Frontiers in Psychology, for example, researchers explain the myriad emotional and social benefits of playing videogames with other people. Among other positive outcomes, “playing with real life friends has allowed players to transfer positive gaming experiences into real life.”  But even from personal experience, we already know that videogames are a great way to hang out with your friends: even casual or non-gamers have bonded with buddies over Super Smash Brothers or Guitar Hero

Personally, I’ve always loved playing games with my friends. Even single-player games, where I’d sit next to friends as they played, watching and chatting over a bowl of popcorn, deciding the next course of action together, making fun of ridiculous parts of the game… I mean, hey, if you can do that sort of thing with movies, why can’t you do it with Neverwinter Nights? Gaming with friends has always been another way of connecting with them, of exploring narratives and worlds together. This feeling became all the more acute during my undergrad years, when an internship in Hamburg (studying Titanium dioxide, thrilling stuff) left me feeling pretty lonely at times. I didn’t go out most weeknights (I had to be at the lab early every morning), and one of the only things that kept sustained me during those evenings in my single, German-military-school dorm room was playing MMOs with my then-boyfriend Adam.

Now, I'm not actually the biggest MMO fan. It has to be pretty awesome to nab my attention. But it wasn’t really about the game itself. It was about a shared experience, about discovering and achieving things together. It also prevented our relationship from devolving into the inevitable “hi-what’s-up-not-much-you?” Skype dates that seem to go hand-in-hand with long-distance relationships. In fact, we still play together, though MMOs have given way to Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone.

During our most recent gaming session, I asked Adam to reflect upon playing together, all those years ago. Why were they fun? How did they help maintain our relationship? “It’s like having a common activity to do while you’re talking,” he said, “and that’s pretty hard to achieve…if you’re far away from your boyfriend.” He explained further that gaming had allowed us to “make memories” together, despite being geographically separated. Adam felt exactly what the Frontiers in Psychology paper had talked about: transferring positive emotions onto real life.

Game designer Max Seidman thinks it’s natural for games to bring people together. In an email exchange, he was quick to underscore how multiplayer games, by definition, are designed to be social. “Gaming is a multi-user medium in a way very few other media forms are,” he told me. Seidman enjoys catches up with friends online through games: “When I want to spend time with friends online, we can Skype and talk for a bit about what movies we've seen and what we've been up to... or we can do the same while teaming up to destroy the Dire in a game of DoTA 2.

Conversely, my friend Angela wouldn’t describe herself as a huge gamer. “[My boyfriend] is a much bigger gamer than me, so there are definitely times when he plays a lot more than me…I have had to take breaks intermittently.” However, they still play at least an hour every night, and it’s important to them as a couple as a way of spending time together. "The couple that lanes together, stays together,” she jokes.

Ultimately, playing games together can work for all kinds of relationships. If you have a partner who’s not so much of a gamer, maybe gently suggest that you try playing something together: it might just make your relationship to a deeper level. If you’re trying out a long-distance thing, maybe an MMO is just what you need to keep things interesting. And if you’re dating another gamer, then, well, you probably already know what I’m talking about.  

Sharang Biswas is a writer, game designer and artist living in New York City. Age of Empires is responsible for much of his education. If you like, you can follow him on Twitter: @SharangBiswas.