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Games For Health: Casual Gaming's Effects on Mood, Stress

Games For Health: Casual Gaming's Effects on Mood, Stress

May 12, 2008 | By Kyle Orland, Chris Remo

May 12, 2008 | By Kyle Orland, Chris Remo
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More: Console/PC

Surveys have suggested that gamers play certain casual games to reduce stress and improve mood - but are those effects borne out by empirical evidence?

A team at East Carolina University's Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies, underwritten (but not directed to find particular answers) by casual publisher PopCap Games, set out to answer that very question - using the power of science.

Two members of the team, Carmen V. Russoniello, Ph.D., L.P.C., L.R.T., B.C.I.A.C., and Jennifer M. Parks, CTRS, presented the group's findings, expanding on initial reports, during this year's Games For Health conference in Baltimore.

Russoniello has been studying the psychological effects of recreational activity for 20 years, making the subject of this survey particularly in line with his professional interests. "I'd probably have done the study even if they hadn't underwrote it, just out of interest," he admitted.

The researcher was sure to note that that this study only begins to delve into the topic. "This is a pilot, exploratory study," he said. "We went in not knowing what to expect." Added Parks, "No one has done a study like this before."

The team then jumped into a statistic-heavy presentation of their findings, which tracked the effects of the games Bejeweled 2, Peggle, and Bookworm Adventures on 143 subjects' emotional and mental states, including tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue, and confusion. Three groups of subjects played one of the three games while undergoing tested, while a control group simply surfed the internet.

Nearly across the board, the games were found to have an ameliorating effect on negative mental states, although in some cases the impact varied across gender and age.

For example, Bejeweled 2 caused a general decrease in physical stress among subjects, while Bookworm Adventures' effect on the same statistic was more pronounced in males. Bookworm Adventures also had a significant positive effect on emotional balance among those younger than 25 years of age, but less of an effect on those older than 25.

That age divide was even more pronounced when testing subjects' confusion level - confusion was significantly reduced among under-25 subjects after playing all three games, whereas confusion level remained insignificantly affected for those over 25.

A different kind of age gap revealed itself in the results around subjects' change in vigor: the trait increased in those under 25 after playing Bejeweled 2, while Bookworm Adventures caused the same effect for those over 25.

Interestingly, females saw a significant decrease in emotional balance after playing Bejeweled 2, whereas males had an increase in that area. All three games reduced anger levels by some amount, but males saw a greater effect after playing Bejeweled 2, while females saw a greater effect after playing Peggle. Both games had a more significant effect in anger reduction on those under 25.

All three games, particularly Peggle and Bookworm Adventures, decreased depression in subjects by significant amounts, up to 45%. The effect was more positive among men.

Despite the wealth of data, the group noted that there is much left to be studied. Traits such as mindfulness were not tracked, nor was the length of the positive effect after playing the games. Still, the positive results are encouraging - developers could even do biofeedback-based "focus testing" of their games before release to optimize positive effects.

After the main presentation, the group announced it has now received a grant to do further study examining activity levels on Wii as well as cognitive activity of sickle cell anemia patients playing PopCap games, measuring mood and pain. Longer term-effects will be examined.

"We play these games for a reason," the researchers said. "When we think of the money we put into the games, it would be silly to spend that kind of money if we didn't get something out of it - something we can't articulate just yet."

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