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The unusual connection between Video Games and Stress

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Do video games cause stress or reduce stress? This question has been posed many times, often when a tragic incident occurs and the perpetrator happened to have played a Call of Duty game. One might say tighter gun control or regulations may be in order, but that is for a different post.

Of course games in general can reduce stress – High rewarding games such as Candy Crush can help you relax after a long day. Violence, debated as it is, can help a user exact a little revenge against annoying co workers or a frustrating morning commute. While they are not actually shooting someone in the face, it’s the thought that counts.

Games can also cause stress, mainly because we blame the game for our failings. Lag of course only happens to ourselves, the person that killed and mercilessly laughed at us is hacking and so on.

I as a gamer have personally took an interest in this, no one likes being stereotyped of course, and have come across a few games that have been specifically made to reduce stress or resolve anger problems.

The first game is called RAGE Control. It stands for Regulate and Gain Emotional Control, and using a heart monitor via the finger the game can measure users heart rates. The game is similar to Space Invaders giving it a simple goal and a familiar gameplay – destroy the enemy spaceships. However if your heart rate surpasses a limit you become unable to shoot the spaceships. When your heart rate lowers, you can carry on blasting those aliens out of the sky.

The effect is that it teaches children to manage outbursts of anger or other emotional responses rather than throwing the controllers at the screen. Aside from protecting screens and developing emotional management, it allows kids to receive therapy they might enjoy.

Boston Children’s Hospital held a preliminary study of 37 children, 18 of which played the game and 19 were the control. The control group had standard treatment during the five-day study without medication or outside influences. The group that played RAGE Control had the same treatment but spent 15 minutes of therapy playing RAGE Control in each session.

After five sessions those that played the game had improved on keeping their heart rate, showed lower anger scores comparatively based on anger intensity, frequency and direction. The control group showed no major changes. Furthermore, the game group rated the game a 5/6 out of 7 on a scale of helpfulness.

However, as the study was limited by sample size results should not be taken as gospel. A further, randomised study has been scheduled where parents and child play a two-player version of the game and if either of their heart rate spikes, both of them cannot shoot. This encourages them to calm each other.

The second game is a game called MindBall. MindBall is more commercialised than RAGE Control, but still has positive effects, allegedly. Using an EEG (Electroencephalography) that monitors two players brainwaves as they race to move a ball across a table, with their mind. If that does not excite you you need to reevaluate your life choices regarding EEG’s. If Player One’s brain waves are at a lower frequency than Player Two’s their ball will move forward and if it reaches the opposite player, they win. This encourages players to be relaxed and focused as opposed to frustration and anger.

But enough about games that are scientifically proven, what about games that have been successful, yet don’t involve brutally tearing a spine from a persons body (for example).

What else but Minecraft? You may have heard of it, Minecraft is a hugely successful game that has spawned films, books, toys, shirts, festivals and other merchandise. It is a game where your unlimited freedom allows for.. unlimited freedom. Accessible, easy to play and capable of running on any machine – this is a good game to relax on. Just by enabling Peaceful – a mode where enemies are disabled and health regenerates automatically (taking away the limitations of the game – Hunger and Health) you can mine, craft and build to your hearts content.

The game won’t chastise you for not following its rules. For instance, someone actually made a game in Minecraft using redstone. Does that sound like a game that causes stress? Quite often the soundtrack is on the back burner but when you have those quiet moments – the moments where the slow piano kicks in and you are looking at the great structure you spent hours making you feel…peaceful.

Secondly there is FEZ. FEZ is a charming puzzle-platformer game that was developed over a long period of time by largely one developer – Phil Fish – but despite struggles, it prevailed. You play as Gomez who lives in a 2D world but you soon gain the power and a fez to see in 3D. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities such as being able to turn that corner you have been curious about for years! Simply, your mission, is to collect bright spinning yellow cubes. Failure is greeted by an immediate reset of where Gomez was. The puzzles, while fiendish are rewarding once they’re completed. You are never mocked or punished for exploring – it is encouraged. Did you know it has its own language, mathematics and actions? You do now. The soundtrack is energetic and lighthearted. Playing this game is playing a game that wants YOU to make the decisions, not the game. Shame we won’t see Fez 2 anytime soon…

A common theme Fez and Minecraft share is that they are non-linear exploration games – what I said about freedom of choice applies here. These quiet games don’t push the player into a binary choice – the open choices we are presented with are what makes the game peaceful. They were also made by small developers at the time working for a niche audience.

To put it into other terms, the more the game pushes a player into a set number of events the less we are in control. Our anger is not towards the other person shooting you through the head with fiery hot lead – it’s the fact that once we are in that situation we can die, or kill them. This will affect our K-D-R, our level, our experience and so on so we are competing, constantly.

But Minecraft and Fez are far more open ended. We can choose to do what the game tells us to do or defy it completely and run off in the other direction. It does not negatively affect us as well, we are not punished for our deviation.

If Call of Duty offered a ‘Friendship Victory’ where players dropped their guns and high fived each other then I would wager it would be a calmer game. It would be funnier too.

To conclude, video games can reduce stress as well as improve focus and is proven to be a good supplement for managing children with anger problems, using some scientific equipment. If you don’t have any EEG’s or heart rate monitors at hand then try purchasing games that are not all about shooting people in the face – the more choices, the more freedom, the less stress. FPS’s are not exactly known for this trait, so if you’re looking for low stress games I would avoid them. Remember, you are the choices you make so if you choose high stress games you are going to feel high stress at times.

Of course the countless debates of video games rages on to this day, and will rage on for many more. As of all good things, moderation is essential.

What games help you relax after a long day? Leave your answers in the comments below!

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