How Video Games Relieve Stress

Woman wearing virtual reality headset
Michela Ravasio/Stocksy United

Much has been written about video games, and quite a lot of it is negative. We have feared that video games are making our children less social and more violent, and making us all more stressed. There's been significant research on the topic, and some good news has come out of it: Video games can actually be good for our stress levels! 

Research on Video Games and Stress

Most gamers report that playing video games—even violent games—is a way to relieve stress and enjoy playing with friends.

However, much of the research conducted on video games comes with the presumption that games are stressful or even psychologically harmful. While this isn’t the whole story, there is some evidence to support this assumption.

How Video Games Create Stress

Some studies show that a stressful in-game situation leads players to experience a stress reaction in real life. Other studies have found that when people play violent games, they are more likely to act aggressively in laboratory-based scenarios. For instance, players who played violent games for 20 minutes were more likely to blast a loud noise at another subject when given the chance, which was considered an indication of aggression.

Another study found that teens who played violent games experienced minimal increases in feelings of aggression, though the increases were barely detectable; teen girls experienced a slight increase in stress.

How Video Games Help Us Relieve Stress: What the Science Shows

Much of the research that has found a link between video game violence and aggression does not actually show a clear link between exposure to in-game violence and real-world aggression. (For example, most people are video game players are not walking around blasting strangers with loud noises after playing their games; this is something mainly found in lab settings where subjects are asked to do so.)

Similarly, while there may be some stress responses triggered by games, overall self-assessments provided by gamers failed to show a link between problems with social life, academic behavior, work behavior, or physical reactions (stress), showing that, if there is a negative effect, gamers themselves are not aware of it and its effects in their lives.

One study examined players as they played either competitive or cooperative games. As predicted, there was a difference in stress levels after playing, and those who played cooperatively experienced a greater decrease in stress levels, but the difference was slight—both groups experienced decreases in stress by playing the game. In addition, both groups retained positive feelings toward the other players, though there was a slightly higher regard for those who were cooperative. This is another way in which video games can provide positive social experiences and a decrease in stress.

Another study used a survey of 1614 game players to examine the use of computer games as a tool for stress recovery.

Results showed that games are indeed used as a coping tool after exposure to stressful situations and strain, and that this “recovery experience” is a significant facet of the gaming experience. Researchers also examined the relationships among work-related fatigue, daily hassles, social support, coping style, recovery experience, and the use of video and computer games for recovery purposes and found that people who more strongly associated game play with stress recovery used video and computer games more often after stressful and exhausting situations.

In addition, participants’ level of work-related fatigue and exposure to daily hassles were both positively associated with the use of games for recovery. Participants with emotion-focused coping style showed a higher tendency to use games for recovery than participants with problem-focused coping style. The relationship between work-related fatigue and game use for recovery purposes was moderated by social support. The stress buffering function of video and computer games was more important for participants receiving less social support. These participants showed a stronger relationship between work-related fatigue and the use of games for recovery than participants receiving more social support.

How We Can Use Video Games for Better Stress Relief

Video games can provide us with a safe and fun outlet for developing our emotional awareness and coping skills. One study from the Behavioral Science Institute in The Netherlands studied proficient gamers who were playing Starcraft 2 to determine if their in-game coping mechanisms were related to their overall stress levels. What they found was that several players who became upset during gameplay found useful coping strategies to handle their negative emotions.

The most useful strategies were those that either sought a resolution to the negative feelings (either by problem-solving or by using personal coping strategies) or ones that sound out social support from other players. One key difference between those who coped well and those who were less effective copers was the ability to monitor their own feelings and internal states—what is known as introceptive awareness—and then take steps to maintain a healthy balance, either by making beneficial decisions to change their situation for the better, or by seeking support. In fact, most games reward players for being able to manage their emotions and work toward solutions in the face of stress.

In understanding what worked best for these gamers, we can use this information in our own lives: developing our own introceptive awareness and using it to maintain emotional balance is a vital part of healthy coping. Even more importantly, by playing games, we can provide practice scenarios for developing these skills in a way that is non-threatening and fun, which is one of the advantages of playing games.

Another study also showed that action-based video games not only reduce stress, but can sharpen cognitive abilities such as reaction speed. This can help gamers think more quickly on their feet and likely be more proficient in problem-solving, which can reduce stress in other ways as well. Overall, there is significant evidence that video games are not only fun, but they can be great stress relievers as well for many reasons.

Recommended Video Games

Casual Games: These games can be picked up and played for a few minutes, and then put down again. They can include simple challenges, short matches of gameplay, or the ability to stop and save at any time. Casual games are enjoyable because they can offer a quick break, a challenging-but-not-stressful experience, and a change in focus. Some casual games include Animal Crossing, Tomodachi Life, or Pokemon X for the 3DS, or this list of casual games for the computer.

Cooperative Games: These games involve challenges that can be completed with other players. There are several benefits to this. A main benefit is that players can create a network of friends through the game, which can be comforting and empowering. We enjoyed playing games with friends when we were young, and this need doesn’t necessarily go away in adulthood.

Another benefit of cooperative gameplay is that players can help one another, offering symbolic support and enabling one another to develop problem-solving skills. These positive experiences and “wins” can feel empowering and build resilience to stress. As subjects have reported, cooperative gaming can relieve stress and create positive feelings among players. These games can be played on handheld gaming systems, over the computer, or even via social media sites like Facebook.

Games With an Explicit Stress Management Component: Some games were actually created to help players learn to manage stress more efficiently. While these games aren’t necessarily as “mainstream” as some of the others, they can be especially helpful for stress relief. Some games train players in meditation while others can even train in biofeedback, helping players build skills in these powerful stress management techniques that can be used in virtually any stressful situation.

Games that teach stress management skills are rare, but there are a few. An older game that teaches biofeedback is known as Relaxing Rythms by Wild Devine, which uses finger sensors to provide in-game feedback. There is also a "brain-sensing headband" known as Muse, which provides feedback for meditation: you listen to nature sounds as you meditate, but once your mind begins to wander, the nature sounds become more intense until you bring your thoughts back to the present moment. This is a devide that seems to fall somewhere between "game" and "tool," but can be enjoyable and more interesting to many new practitioners of meditation.

One very promising game is called Champions of the Shengha, and it allows players to wear a sensor in real life and become more powerful in the game by remaining calm as they play it, facilitating mindfulness practice. (Here you can watch a video of how Champions of the Shengha works.) This is a remarkable game in that it encourages the practice of emotional mastery and allows players to become more powerful in the game as well as in real life as a result. This is ideal for teens and others who may have a difficult time learning stress management techniques like mindfulness, but love playing games. It is still in development, but should be available in the near future.

Games That Build Skills: These games can build brain power or specific abilities. The benefit is that not only can they help to take your mind off of what is stressing you, they can help you to build executive function abilities that can help you to solve problems and stay organized in your regular life--abilities that can relieve stress!

Skill-building games can be puzzle games (like crossword puzzles that you can play online or on a handheld game device) or they can be games that require quick thinking. This includes games like Brain Age, Brain Age 2Brain Age Concentration Training or Big Brain Academy, which can be played on the Nintendo 3DS; WeBoggle, a Boggle game that can be played for free online; language-teaching games like My Spanish Coach, or any of a number of games that make you think quickly.

Games You Really Enjoy: Really, any game that you truly enjoy can be a stress reliever. Virtually any game that you find to be truly fun can be beneficial by providing an escape from daily stress, a break from patterns of rumination, or a way to build positive feelings. So play with it, and see what you enjoy the most!

What to Avoid

Basically, if you enjoy a game, it is probably a good stress reliever for you. Games with a strong social component, particularly a cooperative one, may be especially beneficial as stress relief tools. Finding a game that doesn’t require a huge time investment and allows for casual involvement (rather than carrying a stiff penalty if you need to quit a game after a certain amount of time or play only for limited amounts of time) may be less stressful as well, for obvious reasons. 

Bottom Line: Ultimately, you can pay attention to how you feel during and after you play, and act accordingly.

Sources:

Ferguson, C.J. (2015). Do angry birds make for angry children? A meta-analysis of video game influences on children's and adolescents' aggression, mental health, prosocial behavior and academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10, pp. 646–666.

Ferguson, Christopher J.; Trigani, Benjamin; Pilato, Steven; Miller, Stephanie; Foley, Kimberly; Barr, Hayley. (2016). Violent video games don’t increase hostility in teens, but they do stress girls out. Psychiatric Quarterly, Vol 87(1), pp. 49-56.

Hasan Y; Bègue L; Bushman BJ. (2013). Violent video games stress people out and make them more aggressive. Aggressive Behavior, Vol. 39 (1), pp. 64-70

Lobel, A., Grancic, I., and Engels, R. (2014). Stressful Gaming, Interoceptive Awareness, and Emotion Regulation Tendencies: A Novel Approach. Cyberpsychology, Behavior And Social Networking, Vol 17(4).

Reinecke, L. (2009). Games and recovery: The use of video and computer games to recuperate from stress and strain. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, Vol 21(3), pp. 126-142.

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