Games demand full engagement – and when our brains are fully engaged, amazing things start to happen.
1. Games help break bad habits
Bad habits form around rewards; nobody craves a pack of cigarettes or a tub of ice cream because they hate the way nicotine or sugar makes them feel. But while your local pharmacy offers a whole suite of products designed to curb physical cravings, staving off mental cravings is often on you. One proven solution: play a game.
A 2014 study conducted jointly by Brown University, the American Cancer Society and Stony Brook University found that smokers deprived of nicotine could reduce their cravings simply by playing two-player games or solving puzzles with their romantic partners.
Why does this work? According to MRI scans of the participating couples’ brains, cooperative play and puzzle solving activated the exact same reward centers as nicotine does. Many games – especially the casual variety you are likely to find in your app store of choice – are designed to offer persistent rewards for completing challenges (think of the satisfying visual and sound effects when you obliterate a row of tiles in Candy Crush). So, the next time you feel a craving: reward yourself with a game first.
2. Games reduce pain
Haters may dismiss video games as an “escape” from the challenges of real life but, for many gamers, a more accurate word might be “relief”. In one experiment at the University of Washington Harborview Burn Center, patients undergoing treatment for severe burns were given virtual reality headsets to play a game called Snow World, allowing them to explore an immersive 3-D landscape of hidden ice caves, jolly snowmen and a pleasant dusting of snowflakes even as caregivers provided painful wound treatments.
Patients who played Snow World reported being able to ignore their pain a whopping 92 percent of the time, while those who didn’t typically spent 100 percent of treatment thinking about their own suffering. What’s more, Snow World patients felt an average of 30 to 50 percent total pain reduction, providing an even greater relief than morphine.
Why does this work? Scientists point to the “spotlight theory of attention”, suggesting that our brains work like a spotlight able to focus on a limited amount of information at a time. When our cognitive resources are focused on a mentally-demanding game (say, Candy Crush or Temple Run on your phone), we have less attention to give external stimuli like smells, sounds and even pain.
3. Games give you control of your memory
Engaging your brain with a challenging puzzle not only helps ease immediate physical pain, but also helps control painful recollections of past trauma. For proof of this we turn to a series of Oxford University studies around everyone’s favourite Russian block-stacking game, Tetris. Study participants were shown a sequence of graphic, gory images in order to simulate post-traumatic stress disorder, then broken off into two groups. One group played Tetris for ten minutes while the other group did nothing. When they checked in a week later, researchers found that the Tetris group experienced half as many flashbacks of the violent images as the group that did not play, and overall showed significantly fewer symptoms of PTSD.
Why does this work? Pattern-matching games like Tetris and Candy Crush occupy the visual processing power of the brain so effectively that involuntary visual memories (flashbacks) are severely disrupted. The Oxford study notes that this is only true of visual-heavy games like Tetris; a more text-based game like Words With Friends would not have this memory-hijacking effect.