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For most of us, video games are vehicles of entertainment— a leisurely hobby—but for some of the population, playing video games serves a much more important purpose. A new paper published in the academic journal Games Studies has uncovered that for the men and women who serve or have served in the United States Armed Forces, video games are often used as mechanisms to alleviate stress and cope with related pathologies.

The study by Jaime Banks and John G. Cole has shed some light on how American service members use video games to overcome service-related trauma. Previous research has studied similar territory, examining the relationship between military personnel and entertainment mediums, but typically under clinical settings. Favoring a more true-to-life approach, the new study framed a focus on video games in their natural habitat, the home, and how frequent, self-directed gameplay is currently being used as a coping mechanism by military members and veterans.

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Creative Commons | Official U.S. Navy Page

The Video Game Study

To explore the topic, Banks and Cole surveyed a number of active duty and veteran gamers about their use of video games and game avatars—the digital bodies controlled by the player—to deal with physical and psychological challenges caused by military service. The team asked questions about participants’ military experience, favorite games and main characters, and general gaming habits.

The data revealed that about half of the military or veteran gamers (MVGs) surveyed use video games as coping tools. Many of the respondents found the escapism and diversion granted by video games to be helpful, while others gravitated toward elements of social support (particularly prevalent in MMO titles), and motivations to reconnect with civilian life. “Those who used video games to cope tended to have served longer, and they reported high escape, fantasy and skill-development motivations for gameplay,” Banks said.

The MVGs favorite game genre as a whole was fantasy with military-themed games coming in close second. The service members displayed a clear affinity for games involving the military through storylines, gameplay mechanics, and protagonist types. The authors attribute this preference to participants’ strong pride in military service and the often idealized nature of the armed forces in digital spaces like video games. In addition, evidence suggests that playing as a military-related protagonist could be helpful for MVGs in managing or consolidating their civilian and soldier identities. In military games, service members tended to feel that the playable character was either an extension of them or in opposition to them—someone they would never want to be.

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Creative Commons | Seaman Cyd. M. Vargas

Future Research

As far as Banks is concerned, this study is just the first step in understanding the complexities of what soldiers go through and how they seek to deal with such experiences. She is currently collaborating with researchers at John Hopkins University to further investigate how military and veteran gamers use video games to cope with diagnosed conditions, as well as how their military and civilian identities intersect.

New research is expected to dig deeper by exploring demographic differences in coping mechanisms among military gamers. The team hopes to find out exactly which aspects of video games—narrative, gameplay mechanics, music, or interactivity—is the primary facilitator in the coping process.

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