Editor’s Note: Natalie Schriefer, MFA, is an editor of academic research. Her writing often focuses on pop culture, sexuality and coming of age. Find her on Twitter @schriefern1. The views expressed in this commentary are the writer’s own. View more opinion at CNN.
I don’t remember a time before Zelda.
My mom’s Nintendo Entertainment System predates me, and all my life, video games provided me with both fun and challenge. So I was thrilled when the newest iteration, “The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom,” debuted this month, six long years after 2017’s Zelda release. Within three days of its debut, “Tears of the Kingdom” moved 10 million units, making it the all-time fastest-selling Nintendo game in the Americas.
But the unfettered joy I feel today in playing the latest version of Nintendo’s legendary series took me longer to acquire than all 900 Korok seeds. While my parents supported my playing video games growing up, so many others blamed them for ruining lives.
This is why May 2023 is such an exciting time in gaming. Not only is the long-awaited release of Zelda upon us, but a meta-analysis by Chinese academics found that virtual reality games, one of the more immersive types of video gaming, can actually be good for health by improving physical function in older adults – in some cases more than conventional exercise.
It’s the latest in a flurry of studies demonstrating the physical and cognitive benefits of gaming, ranging from balance and knee extension strength, to the positive association it can have with reading and attention, to its enhancement of some cognitive functions and a sense of wellbeing if not done excessively (which can actually make things worse).
While I welcome these findings, I can’t help but feel a renewed frustration for the messaging around gaming that so many of us experienced along the way. My teachers in the aughts didn’t like them. Though their disdain was targeted at gratuitously violent or sexual games, which Zelda is not, they often lumped all games into one category: bad.
Cultural icons and politicians only amplified that message. In 2003, Oprah Winfrey’s producers searched for video game addicts for an episode of her TV show. In 2005, California passed a law regulating the sale of violent video games (later overturned for being unconstitutional). In 2007, Dr. Phil even blamed video games for the Virginia Tech shooting.
At best, gaming was considered a waste of time. My high school teachers routinely told us we would have done better on the latest pop quiz if we hadn’t wasted time on “Halo,” a sci-fi military shooter series of games, or “Pokémon,” a fantasy series in which players battle each other with a team of pocket monsters (or Pokémon).
For years I fixated on the oversimplification of “gaming = bad.” It hit me hardest in college, when I vowed to reinvent myself: I left my consoles at home. It was time to grow up. I even quit Zelda.
At the time, I was questioning my sexuality, and guilt and shame permeated all that I did. That self-loathing carried into the clothes I wore, the choices I made about my career – and the way I spent my free time. Through therapy, I’ve grown to embrace all the aspects of my identity, including my love of video games, but I wish these shameful feelings had never been given fertile ground to grow in the first place.
It’s bittersweet to now have international universities vindicate video games based on scientific assessments of their impact. On the one hand, it helps me finally rid myself of the internalized message that I was doing something wrong by playing them, even if they were just an occasional hobby for me alongside tennis, reading and drawing.
On the other hand, these new studies underscore that the damage these messages inflicted was misguided; though some pro-gaming academics could be found more than a decade ago, they couldn’t dent the stereotypes in the broader society.
The good news is that this research can help change the narrative going forward, and help the next generation of gamers feel better about their recreation of choice.
That said, it’s important to note that it’s not only academia that’s changing the gaming landscape. Communities of gamers have also created spaces for themselves to articulate the meaning and delight they find in their pursuit, whether it’s the social connection and community that online gaming provides, or the challenge (and nostalgia!) of speedrunning retro games.
One such community is the Into the Spine website, which focuses on personal essays about video games and encourages writers to share the ways that video games have improved their lives. Last fall, I wrote about how I found self-compassion in “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” through the titular Zelda’s struggle with shame and doubt.
I remember wishing as I wrote the piece that Into the Spine had existed when I was younger. Diego Argüello, the 26-year-old Argentinian writer who founded the site, did so for this purpose: to talk about video games in a more personal way.
Argüello has always felt the benefits of gaming were clear. Aside from their entertainment value, he used video games alongside other forms of media to learn English (which is the language used on Into the Spine).
Though I couldn’t point to something as clear as vocabulary, I too had a sense that I was learning something from the games I played growing up. Gaming felt similar to tennis: Both required delayed gratification as I worked my way up to higher levels as well as dedicated effort as I mastered new capabilities – not to mention that they both improved my hand-eye coordination.
The nuance the recent positive studies add to the conversation around gaming is also important because gaming, like everything else, isn’t perfect; open-minded examinations of video games also mean more reliable findings of what is actually negative. Some, for instance, have shown that certain games are correlated with an increase in players’ aggressiveness.
And none of the recent studies I’ve mentioned argue that gaming is all good, all the time, for all people. They simply highlight elements of games that have positive components.
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I’m not interested in erasing the negative aspects of gaming, such as the 2020 sexual misconduct allegations on Twitch streamers, in which more than 100 industry members publicly discussed their abusers. This led to investigations and platform bans on individual streamers, among other actions. Or the ways that female and BIPOC representation are lacking in many games.
But I also want to talk about the ways that games have helped people. I wish I’d been able to trust my instincts on gaming when I was younger. Now, I’m glad to have more widespread empirical evidence and inner confidence as I continue to pursue this passion – and glad that the next generation of gamers has access to that, too.