The Secret to Making Video Games Good for You

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This week, we explore the link between gaming and wellness.

Video games are the new self-help, and Jane McGonigal is here to tell us why.

She's an all around gaming boss (see here and here) and she's the director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California where she's spent years researching our brains during what she calls, "the state of play." After wading through tons of research, she found that gaming is a wonderland of possibilities to make us smarter, happier, and more creative people. 

So game play isn't just an escape? Nope, it doesn't have to be. Jane says that the key to finding positive emotions and empowerment is to ground your gaming in real life. So when you're trapped in Minecraft, don't give up and walk away, trudge on. Fight. Or use creative problem-solving to get to to the next level. Those skills or resources will spill out from the virtual world and into the real one. 

In fact, gaming can help cope with depression and combat anxiety, but it's all about the dosage (i.e. how much gaming you're doing). And we didn't want to leave you hanging when it comes to figuring out which games are best for what. Here are Jane's prescriptions:

  • If you're trying to lose weight: "When you feel a craving coming on, play a visual pattern-matching game on your phone -- like Tetris or Candy Crush Saga – for ten minutes. These games have been shown in scientific studies to reduce cravings, by monopolizing your visual imagination and blocking your brain's ability to picture the thing you crave. Research shows that players make healthier eating choices in the hour after they've played!"
  • If you need to reduce stress or combat anxiety: "Try the new game Reigns. It's a simple and easy-to-learn game in the style of games known to activate the same blood flow patterns in the brain as meditation, creating a blissful state of mind known as "flow." Research shows that twenty minutes of these flow-inducing games, three times a week, will help you focus your mind and calm yourself, and improve your mood for hours afterward. (Believe it or not, I’ve met many Buddhist monks who play Angry Birds!)"
  • If you could use a boost of extra energy and motivation: "Play a really tricky puzzle game, like Sudoku, Cut the Rope, or The Room. Research shows that trying to solve a difficult puzzle increases dopamine levels in your brain, which is the neurotransmitter that increases your work ethic and will power. It doesn't matter if you successfully complete the game or not – just trying will do the trick, and the harder the better. So if you have a difficult project to tackle, or a complex problem to solve, prime your brain for success with fifteen minutes of puzzling first."

Manoush is an old-school Tetris addict and she just downloaded it on her phone to play guilt-free. But what's your jam? Tell us what you like playing and why. As per the usual,  get in touch at notetoself@wnyc.org, or the comments section below, or on Twitter or Facebook.  

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