Chess was once blamed for triggering mental health problems, including suicide and even murder. Today, the same is said of video games.
Many years ago, chess was thought a triviality at best and a pathway to insanity at worst. Several media outlets made claims like this, perhaps most notably, Scientific American. In reality, chess does not cause mental health problems, but the game does have a special appeal to people with autism.
In the minds of many, new and often violent video games are considered mentally destructive. However, once upon a time, hours spent playing chess were considered as wasteful and mindless as a Fortnite binge is today.
Recent years have seen a renewed interest in the game, thanks in part to the pandemic but also to the hit Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit.
A century and a half ago, another young chess prodigy would also cause an upsurge of interest in chess among the younger generation. His name was Paul Morphy, and in 1858 – after numerous chess victories in Europe – was widely considered the best player in the world at just 21 years of age. In Paris, a bust of Morphy would be unveiled and a wreath placed around its neck. In London, Morphy would be invited to a private audience with Queen Victoria. And in America, Morphy’s home country, he was hailed a hero who kicked off a new national trend in chess playing.
The resulting “mania” drew scorn. In response to a letter from a concerned housewife, one newspaper editor said the new chess craze was “exactly like an epidemic,” and regardless of any virtues, was “too engrossing, monopolizes too much intellect for mere recreation, and is not profitable.”
He proclaimed that “for young men to become insane on the subject, and believe they are going to be a Paul Morphy, is one of the absurd, as well as sad, effects of the chess panic.”
Then Scientific American published a piece titled “Chess-Playing Excitement.”
“Chess has acquired a high reputation as being a means to discipline the mind” and a sign of “superior intellect,” the article read. But Scientific American stated that those assumptions were “exceedingly erroneous” and “buncombe.”
History is littered with troubled chess champions that met sad and untimely ends. Each time, the press would wonder if it was chess that had caused their demise, seeing correlation and assuming causation. Over time, this pattern was thought proof of the deleterious effects of the game on the mind.
Today, chess is no longer blamed for mental health problems, even when notable players make headlines because of it. Yet, when it comes to more modern games – like the ones you can find on Twitch – similar questions are being asked, with headlines such as “Mental health issues remain pervasive problem in esports scene.”
It seems we learn little from history.