Is gaming good for stress?

We're picking apart some of the latest neuroscience news...
20 August 2019

Interview with 

Helen Keyes, ARU; Duncan Astle, Cambridge University


Brain schematic


To shine a light on the neuroscience news of the day, neuroscientist Duncan Astle from Cambridge University and psychologist Helen Keyes from Anglia Ruskin University picked apart a few research papers, with Katie Haylor. First up, Helen looked into a paper aiming to tackle work-related stress, but not in the way you might think...

Helen - So the gold standard is engaging in mentally engaging activities and physically engaging activities and socially engaging activities, particularly if you can combine these. So team sports is something that's really singled out as excellent in reducing work stress and having positive knock on effects.

However, many of us work very long hours and many of us commute, and so the gold standard of engaging in team sports every evening isn't really going to work out for a lot of our lifestyles. The authors here were interested in looking at whether something we have immediate access to all the time, so our phones, whether they can be useful in reducing our work stress.

First of all they had to say what do we mean by recovery from work stress? There has to be psychological detachment. And what they mean by that is you have to not be thinking about work. It has to be a relaxing task. So jumping out of a plane isn't going to do it for you.

And interestingly it has to be a task that involves some level of mastery. So a feeling of gaining a new skill and some level of directly controlling the output. And the authors think digital games actually satisfy all of these criteria. So a puzzle game on your phone for example, they wanted to see if this could reduce work stress.

Interestingly and controversially they wanted to compare this with something that people claim relieves work stress which is practicing mindfulness. And they could have a really nice comparison here because there are quite a lot of mindfulness apps available on your phone. If we think about mindfulness it could lead to this psychological detachment, it's relaxing. It's a bit more iffy as to whether it leads to a sense of mastery and control. I'm sure if you're very good at mindfulness it might do those things.  And the evidence in general on the usefulness of mindfulness is quite mixed.

So they brought people directly into the lab in their first study. They brought 45 participants in and gave them a work task that's considered quite stressful. So they gave people maths tasks to do for 15 minutes and then those participants were divided into three groups and they were either asked to play a puzzle game on a phone for 10 minutes, to do mindfulness exercise using an app, or a control condition was to just use a fidget spinner for 10 minutes. Before this task participants’ energetic arousal and their recovery was measured.

Katie - So is that how much energy you’ve got to stick the cooker on and make some dinner after you get home from work. That kind of thing?

Helen - That's an excellent description of that scale. How much emotional and cognitive energy you have available to you and also how relaxed you feel and how in control things like that.

They measured this before people did the stressful task, directly after the stressful task, and then following the relaxation intervention. And they found that participants’ energetic arousal increased following playing the game. So between time 2 and 3 after you've done the stressful task. And then after the recovery period, the game was effective in recovering you, in increasing your and energetic arousal. Whereas the mindfulness app wasn't.

So the authors wanted to take this out into the real world then, and they asked 20 participants over five days to take part in these activities. So full time workers and immediately when they got in they would do these energetic arousal and recovery scales. Half of them would engage in the mindfulness app exercise and half of them would engage in playing a game for 10 minutes. Then do those tests again to measure their recovery.

And again they found that playing the game was much more useful and much more effective in work stress recovery. And interestingly, they found that as the week went on it became more and more effective. So if we think about recovery involving a sense of mastery, or gaining a new skill, this makes sense because over the week participants will be gaining more mastery over the game they're playing and getting more and more work stress recovery benefit from it. However the opposite was true for the mindfulness app people. So as the week went on this became less and less effective for them in terms of recovering their work stress.

Katie - Interesting! As an avid gamer I'm guessing this is a sweet music to your ears?

Helen - This is music to my ears I can go home and tell my husband everyday “it's work stress recovery darling, everything's fine”. And so I think the take home from this really is we can't ignore that the best thing, the gold standard, for work stress recovery is going to be a social and physical activity like team sports. But taking out your phone and playing the game is gonna be a really effective way of reducing that work stress.

And we might controversially ask whether mindfulness is really just trying to do something that a video game already does and does better? And indeed it has been suggested that perhaps we could put this as mindlessness is more effective at reducing work stress than mindfulness.

Katie - I do try and practice mindfulness. I find it really hard. Could it not be that being mindful is difficult and takes longer than a week to master whereas maybe a game is a bit easier to do so you get that sense of achievement?

Helen - It absolutely could. Notoriously mindfulness is hard to master, it's hard to switch off your mind but then that begs the question well why don't we just recommend playing games if it's an easier way to access what we're trying to get at which is is stress recovery and restoration? Why don't we just go straight to the game and skip the difficult middleman?

Katie - Equally the cynic in me has the suspicion that games are designed to be addictive, right? So what if you end up using your coping mechanism too much?

Helen - We should be cynical about this, playing games often involves paying money as well. So there are certainly are potential pitfalls to this. But if we're looking at a purely recovery basis, I think we can feel a bit smug finally (the way mindfulness people can tend to feel a bit smug) we can most gamers can start to feel a bit smug about ourselves too.

Katie - And I can feel less bad for not being very good at mindfulness.

Helen - Absolutely.

Katie - Duncan do you have any thoughts?

Duncan - What’s the evidence on whether a phone app mindfulness tools are as effective as the kind of real deal mindfulness? It could be that what they've basically done is kind of compare a full bodied game with a kind of diet version of mindfulness and the diet version of life that doesn't do anything. There might be other benefits to mindfulness when it's done in its entirety.

Helen - If you have the time to go and do mindfulness training with a group of people I mean that's fantastic it's getting close to that gold standard of going outside and meeting people. And you also mentioned other benefits of mindfulness. We have to take this in the context of the research around mindfulness, so this is a very mixed field. So there are certainly studies that show other benefits of mindfulness and indeed show recovery benefits when practiced correctly which is fantastic. There is an awful lot of studies that show no benefit of mindfulness, and it could come back to what you were saying earlier about how good you are at practising. If this is what's available to people on their phone it looks like games are a better quick fix than a mindfulness app.


Duncan looked at a paper asking whether socialising is associated with dementia risk. Over 28 years, this study has been tracking the lives of about 10,000 London civil servants, asking at various times throughout their lives how much social contact they were engaging in, and they did this thanks to open data...

Duncan - Whenever you are asked about “would you like to share your personal data for research purposes?”, this is the kind of study that that makes possible. So they were able to access the electronic NHS records for all 10,000 plus participants and what they could then test is whether or not there was a significant relationship between the amount of social contact participants had and the subsequent risk of getting dementia. And they found that there was a significant relationship, in particular the amount of social contact when participants were aged 60 was predictive of a lower risk of dementia in later life.

Katie - Does it depend on the type of social contact? Presumably you need to like the people that are hanging around with?

Duncan - [giggles] It’s particularly friends and not relatives. So it depends on how well you get on with your relatives I guess as to whether those fits your question! But  mainly social contact with friends rather than relatives.

Katie - Was this regular social contact? Was there anything that could be inferred with regard to length of time or quality?

Duncan - Well, good question. So they only actually have four questions on social contact which they use at each time point. So they don't have massive amounts of information. But yes it's regular social contact, but we don't know too much about the nature of the social contact just that it's mostly based with friends.

Katie - So what can be inferred from this relationship?

Duncan - As with all of these kinds of studies, the big issue is cause and effect. Because we're looking at early social contact and subsequent dementia risk, we often might get us into thinking “well that means that the early social contact is causally related to subsequent dementia risk”.

But it also could be true that say at 60 years old some participants are showing early symptoms of dementia. We think that the underlying pathology might start 10 to 15 years before very recognizable symptoms present. So it could be that the reason these two things are related are simply because some people have earlier signs of dementia and that impacts upon their social contact. That's why there's a relationship with dementia.

But it's certainly exciting in the sense that those who have higher social contacts - so for instance if you're in the top 15 percent on the social contact scale - you'll have a 12 percent reduction in dementia risk. If you're in the top 1 or 2 percent you'll have a 24 percent reduction.

Katie - Those are pretty big numbers!

Duncan -  Yeah, my suspicion is it might partly be inflated by this idea of cause and effect but that underlying probably some genuine effect, that having stronger social contact has a generally positive benefit for brain health, and that that then stands you in good stead in older age.

Helen - Is it possible or likely though that a third factor could be affecting both your social activity and your risk for dementia, so perhaps a personality factor could be driving both?

Duncan - I think that's true for some conditions. As far as I know there aren't particular personality traits that are predictive of dementia per say. But we do know that there are other underlying mental health conditions which themselves might then become risk factors for dementia. It's possible and hard to control for, that that might drive reductions in social contact earlier in life. And then also confers a greater risk of dementia in later life, and there's no direct link between social contact and dementia per say.


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