Skip to main content

“Reborn Into Another Realm”: How Gaming Can Help Refugees Control Their Mental Health

By February 27, 2024Blog post

Names may have been changed.

Adrenaline rushing into your system, your heartbeat sky-high, your whole body in fight or flight mode. These are feelings video game players like Adriana experience.

Gaming helped Adriana combat depression and anxiety while waiting for a decision on their application to become a refugee in the UK.

“I found gaming helpful, kind of therapeutic when I felt the lowest, which was most of the time; I temporarily had been detached from the misery and constant fear I was living in as an asylum seeker. I had become the character, reborn into another realm.”

People who play video games know how fascinating it is to embark on an immersive journey into realms of imagination. From simple mobile games to stepping on an epic adventure in an infinite fantasy world, to the joy of overcoming challenges and complex strategy problems, gaming offers not only an escape from reality and sluggish moments but also a sense of accomplishment and triumph.

Conquering a difficult level or defeating a formidable foe can leave you feeling proud and fulfilled.

“Unlike real life, I had overcome all obstacles and defeated evils. That helped me to carry on and not to give up day after day and made me more resilient toward the harsh reality of my life,” Adriana said.

Excessive release of adrenaline might contribute to anxiety and other mental health issues, but moderate exposure to adrenaline-inducing activities, can have positive effects on mental wellbeing and resilience.

The other significant aspect of gaming, often overlooked, is the connection and camaraderie stemming from multiplayer games in which players collaborate to achieve common goals or compete against rivals in intense competitions.

Recent research showed that video games could mitigate the symptoms of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

In Gaming Your Mental Health (2021), Magdalena Kowal’s research team argue that:

“the commercial video games are being explored as alternative solutions to traditional mental health treatment methods … [they] show great promise as inexpensive, readily accessible, internationally available, effective, and stigma-free resources for the mitigation of some mental health issues in the absence of, or in addition to, traditional therapeutic treatments”.

Ariana, like many other refugees, has experienced a great deal of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.

The mental health issues experienced by people seeking asylum are unique and rooted in the combination of pre-migration trauma, the horrendous journey to safety, and the retraumatising effect of the UK’s hostile asylum system.

People seeking asylum in the UK, for instance, are forced to live in inhabitable asylum accommodation and isolation. They are separated from loved ones and their support network.

They experience language barriers and cultural differences, and are banned from working with very few exceptions. This forces people seeking safety to live in poverty, amplifying all of the mental health challenges they already face.

For Adriana, gaming provides the escape they need:

“When I dive into the immersive world of the game, for a moment, I forget about my traumatic memories. It provides a temporary relief. Especially those games with a rich storyline and captivating images.

“When you play game, you find new friends, and they don’t care where you come from, what do you believe, what language you speak or how you identify yourself, you get along and play together to win. It’s very refreshing, and maybe I’m wrong, but I like them very much, the people I’ve never seen in real life.”

There are even well-known characters from games who are displaced people, forced to leave their homes and embark on the uncertain and dangerous journeys of survival that real-life refugees know all too well. Ellie and Joel in The Last of Us, Aloy from Horizon Zero Dawn and, more obscurely, Abe From the Oddworld series.

While gaming can be a valuable coping mechanism, it’s obviously not solution to the mental health challenges faced by refugees. The root causes of poor mental health in the asylum system are hostility, enforced poverty and abysmal housing conditions. These are the priorities that Refugee Action focuses on.

But healthy coping skills like gaming, alongside therapy and emotional support, help people like Adriana enjoy the lives they are rebuilding in the UK.