I’m into Sock Dye these days, a Facebook game that gives you a certain number of clicks to turn a field of socks all the same color. I play a couplafew games of Sock Dye every few hours during the day, and at night I wind down with Sock Dye and Jon Stewart.
I’ve been through a Freecell phase, a Word Drop phase, and Tetris is a longtime favorite. My husband has called it “sorbet for the mind,” which seems a perfect description. Some time with these games leaves me feeling calm and refreshed.
I also like them while I’m on the phone. I’m introverted and kinda ADD and not a fan of the phone. I have a hard time keeping my busy mind focused on a disembodied voice. Keeping half my mind engaged with an easy game actually helps me pay better attention to the call.
These games are powerful stuff, and it’s not all bad.
A study out of the University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry proposes that playing Tetris immediately after a traumatic experience may help prevent later, involuntary flashbacks. Our brains can only process so much at a time, and if we keep them busy during the window of time when memories are consolidated, we can interfere with memories searing in too deeply. (In this study, in which participants watched traumatizing film footage, voluntary memory was not affected.)
Other research has found that gaming causes a release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter of feelin’ fine. We love the striving and reward aspects of video gaming. We‘re told what we need to do, we do it, we get a reward. Dopamine all ‘round! A 2009 study out of Hamburg Media School finds that computer games are useful for recovering from day-to-day stress.
Now East Carolina University’s Psychophysiology Lab and Biofeedback Clinic has explored the connection between depression and “casual” video games—games you can pop in and out of, that don’t require hours glued to the couch with a joystick. For this study, they used Bejewled 2, Peggle, and Bookworm Adventures, games made by the company PopCap, which underwrote the research.
In the experimental group, people played one of those games (their choice) at least 30 minutes, three days a week, for a month. The control group didn’t. Both groups also came into the lab for physiological monitoring at the beginning and end of the month. There, the experimental group played games for 30 minutes, while the control group perused the National Institutes of Mental Health consumer web site on depression, which seems a little unfair. Which is more likely to cheer you up—playing Peggle or reading about depression? Perhaps that was meant to simulate traditional treatment for depression.
At any rate, the results—nicely laid out here —indicate that casual gaming may help ease depression; state anxiety (being anxious at the moment) and trait anxiety (being a generally anxious person); tension; anger; fatigue; and confusion. There also was an increase in vigor in the gamers.
Credible? I think so. If you play these games, you know they do stuff to us.
Here’s my cockamamie theory: When neurons are overstimulated and popping off every which way, casual gaming focuses them, allowing them to settle down. The games treat what ails you at the moment. So if your anxiety neurons are buzzing, the game calms them. If you are depressed and ruminating, the game interrupts the tape loop. I tend to get scattered in my thinking and Sock Dye requires creating unity. It smoothes out my thinking, like combing tangled hair. Perhaps this relates to my last cockamamie theory, about brain counterbalance.
Tetris is practically a meditation, and evidently dreaming about Tetris is commonplace. I find watching the disk defrag graphic on my computer similarly soothing and hypnotic. But even violent games take you out of yourself. A 2003 study at the University of California study set out to see patterns brain activity in response to violent video games. The study required people to put their heads three feet into an fMRI machine and play Tactical Ops. According to Your Brain on Video Games, a 2005 article in Discover magazine: Even a mild claustrophobic will invariably find the experience intolerable, and most people need a break after 20 minutes. But most of the Tactical Ops players happily stayed in the machine for at least an hour, oblivious to the discomfort and noise because they were so entranced by the game.
If it works for an fMRI machine, it must work for a cubicle, too. These games just send us to our happy place.
And so I am unapologetic about my Sock Dye habit because it seems to be doing me no harm. In fact, it might even be doing some good.