Research about the health implications of fantasy games is about as common as finding a quality running back in the sixth round. But Arlen Moller, an associate professor in the psychology department at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, said it’s important to distinguish between types of fantasy sports.
“Some are more oriented towards gambling and playing with strangers,” said Moller, who studies the motivations behind healthy behavior and has examined using fantasy sports to promote health. “But the foundational versions of the season-long game are usually played between friends and family.” Seasons might last months, and leagues can last years.
The U.S. surgeon general has declared loneliness and social isolation a national epidemic, but Moller said friend-based leagues can provide a regular source of healthy social interaction, the way an Elks Club or a bowling league might have a generation ago.
Moller has more than an academic expertise on this. He’s been playing in one fantasy football league since the end of his undergraduate days more than two decades ago. His friends are spread around the world, but fantasy football keeps them together. He’s also in a second league made up of professional colleagues.
“Having a way to engage with a positive force like fantasy sports can really add to one’s social circle,” said Renee Miller, a professor in the department of brain and cognitive science at the University of Rochester in New York. High levels of social satisfaction, she said, “are one of the best correlates with longevity and mental health.”
She likens fantasy sports to puzzles. Playing “really forces your brain to work in creative ways,” requiring you to use different data sources while monitoring the players and their stats amid ever-shifting circumstances. All that requires mental flexibility, cognitive flexibility and logical reasoning, she said, “and those are all skills that we practice less and less as we get older.”
Moller noted that research suggests both social and mental stimulation reduces the risk of dementia and cognitive decline.