I’m not ashamed to admit it. I am currently on level 1104 of Candy Crush Friends Saga. And I am a fully grown (and potentially, by now, shrinking) adult. Every night after I have fulfilled all of my obligations running around Los Angeles, I turn off the lights, slide into bed, and . . . play games on my phone.
I do this practically every night. My husband teases me about what he calls my “addiction” but I play anyway. For some reason, the action of matching objects takes just enough of my brainpower to keep me from spiraling about world events, the fact that the traffic in Los Angeles is getting worse and worse post-pandemic, the overall disgustingness of potty training a two-year-old, and the fact that the romaine from my garden tastes like death.
As I slide the colorful pieces around my phone, I feel my previously involuntarily clenched muscles release, I notice my breathing slowing, and I let go of the day’s worries. I even let go of that little voice inside my head that says, “You shouldn’t be looking at blue light before you go to bed. You should be writing down 10 article ideas instead.”
Last night when I clicked off my phone and closed my eyes, I wondered if there actually could be some benefits of playing this kind of game. Maybe, just maybe, I was inadvertently doing something good for myself.
Not all video games are created equal
First of all, as I began to do my research, I realized that not all video games are created equal. Animal Crossing is not the same as Call of Duty and they do very different things to your body when you play them. It turns out, violent video games can make you angrier than you were before beginning to play them.
The National Center for Health Research says, “In 2017, the APA Task Force on Violent Media concluded that violent video game exposure was linked to increased aggressive behaviors, thoughts, and emotions, as well as decreased empathy.” So . . . if you’re looking to relax or unwind, virtually punching, kicking, shooting, or exploding other organisms isn’t likely the best way to go.
Contrarily, though, a study on the comparison of effects on post-work recovery showed that games like Block! Hexa Puzzle were just as effective as apps like Mindspace at helping players recover after a stressful day of work. This kind of game puts your brain in an almost equivalent of flow state where you’re completely in the present moment (and not able to worry about the past or future).
After doing some research, I was relieved to find that what my husband called my addiction was actually my involuntary action to satisfy the need to let my brain recover from a long day of work in the Los Angeles hustle and bustle. As the title of this section states, though, not all games are created equal. Every study I read said that different games create different physiological reactions in the players. So, if you’re going to choose to play a game, it’s best to be mindful of which game you choose.
Which games are the most relaxing?
Well, you can guess which games aren’t relaxing and it usually discernible by the name alone. A recent study that rated games’ stressfulness based on players’ heart rates lists MarioKart, Call of Duty, FIFA Football, Fortnite, and Dark Soulsas the most stressful games to play. One specific section of Dark Souls actually raised its players’ heart rates to 127 BPM (a 98% increase over the baseline).
So . . . I’d recommend steering clear of those if you want to chill out a bit. On the other side of the coin, the New York Times just came out with a list of the most relaxing video games of 2020. These games include Stardew Valley, A Short Hike, Eufloria, and Apple Arcade. Now, these game titles are a little more friendly-sounding, right?
I just got an Oculus 2 VR headset and am also loving apps like Tripp and Alcove that help me tune out and get into a mindful place. I found one study that suggests that I might be right on track with assisting my mindfulness with my video games.
“We found tentative support for our major hypothesis that some types of mindfulness are associated with gaming. Immersion (or absorption) is an individual difference variable while presence and game genre (i.e., aggressive types) are a situational variables which may mediate the mindfulness–gamer association.”
While I’m sure that most doctors and scientists wouldn’t recommend replacing your regular meditation practice with the likes of Tetris, some of the more relaxing games may be a good tool to aid in the post-work or midday decompression process.
The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society states that, “Those who took a silent rest break reported that they felt less engaged with work and experienced worry as a result, whereas those who participated in the guided relaxation activity saw reductions in negative affect and distress. Only the video game players reported that they felt better after taking the break.”
I remember the moment that I saw Kevin Spacey portraying the president of the United States on the TV show House of Cards . . . playing video games. He was zoned out, focused, and not worried about anything but zapping zombies. I instantly related (with the character — not the actual person).
If you know me and my writing, you know that I’m probably Los Angeles' most geeky productivity nerd and I’m highly motivated to get things done and conquer the world every day of my life. But, I’ve found that there does need to be a balance. Yes, I meditate and do yoga in my back yard, but at the end of the day, I like to reward myself with a little game or two.
I will say this — video games are not just for teenage boys. I love to step into another world, shut off the pinball machine of my monkey mind, and match up some colorful candies. Bring on the blue light haters. I will continue to slay the day and then decompress with a little virtual treat at night.