Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

Is gaming a good relaxation strategy?

A question from a school librarian the other day. It’s a question I’m often asked.

“How would you respond to a teenager who says gaming provides them with the same kind of relaxation/ narrative immersion as reading? It’s a difficult argument! I try to chat with them about the emotional involvement with a literary character, and the imaginative/ transportation effect of going on their story with them, which isn’t as wide or detailed in a game. Obviously in a game you have all the visuals and don’t need to imagine the physical world of the story either. Personally I think anything fast-moving and on a screen can’t be as relaxing as reading, but I don’t want to throw too many anti-gaming arguments at a teenager I’m trying to encourage to read. Sure you understand.”

Based on a lot of reading about this, a deep understanding of the mechanics and psychology 0f stress and countless hours thinking all such things through, here’s what I think:

There are two parts to the question/answer.

  1. How gaming compares to reading in terms of immersion and emotional involvement
  2. And to what extent it’s a good form of relaxation, bearing in mind that heart rate is likely to rise, not reduce

1. I think it’s most likely that gaming provides a high level of immersion and “engagement”, that state of mind where one becomes totally “on task” and carried away from the things outside the game. I suspect that the transportation and engagement elements are comparable with reading. After all, someone involved in a game of this sort is visibly focused on the game and often unaware of peripheral activities.

A slightly different question is whether it allows the same level of transportation into the mind/emotions of the character as can happen when reading narrative. It may do. But I suspect that often it falls a little short, in the same was as I believe watching a film falls a little short, because there is less imaginative creation in the mind of the gamer/watcher than there is in the reader, who is having to create mental pictures for himself. So, I suspect that, if one were simply to test “level of narrative transportation” and the extent to which the brain areas activated during engaging with a character in written narrative are the same as those activated during immersion in a video game or film, then gaming and films would probably fall short.

To clarify: I’m saying that the immersion and engagement are likely to be the same, but the transportation into the mind-state and emotions of the character is probably less in gaming because the gamer is fed the visual picture and characteristics, rather than having to visualise them himself. But immersion and engagement are important and may be enough of a benefit on their own.

However, there are many more things that make video gaming legitimately relaxing. And so I come to the answer to part two of the question.

2. There are many different reasons why, at any given time, a relaxing activity is necessary. These boil down to two categories: a) when we need to do something to take our minds off worries, to escape and b) when we need to lower our heart-rate, for example before sleep.

For the reason given by the questioner, video gaming is not a good solution to b). But it could be a very good solution to a) for the very reason that it clearly does allow escape and switching off from worries, because of its immersive nature.

There are a few other points to make:

A. One major problem with video gaming is how easy it is to do it for an unhealthy amount of time. There are several reasons why it’s not ideal – and may be be harmful – to do it for too long:

  1. If we spend too long on one thing – anything – it’s most likely that we’re not spending long enough on another – homework, face-to-face socialising, other hobbies, reading, going outside and getting sunlight on our skin, for example.
  2. Video gaming is sedentary and we may not get enough physical exercise. We know that being too sedentary has health disadvantages.
  3. It comprises a single set of skills, which we will undoubtedly be improving, but we should do varied activities if we want to use many areas of the brain.
  4. There is an addictive drive connected with these activities. If someone isn’t affected by this, no problem, but it’s very easy to become obsessed with the game.
  5. Too much gaming can make a player feel anxious, snappy and irritable afterwards. Again, if this isn’t a problem then it isn’t but it’s important for gamers to be honest with themselves.

So, doing it for short periods of time is FINE and likely to be beneficial in someone who enjoys it but doing it too much is likely to have some negative effects.

How long is too long? Hard to say! I’d say spending an hour or two in an evening is fine – as long as my points below are recognised… – and maybe a bit more at a weekend. A bit more than that is unlikely to lead to problems. But much more is, I would argue, not healthy. I think the test is: “Am I doing the other things I need for a healthy life?” If you are, no worries.

B. My philosophy about choosing relaxing activities is this: they must be DIFFERENT, VARIED and DELIBERATE. Let me explain:

Different – as in different from what you were doing during your working day. So, if your working day involves mostly being in front of a screen, I’d say at least some of your relaxation time should not be in front of a screen. If most of your working day is spent picking broccoli, I’d say relaxing with a video game would be great and picking cabbage wouldn’t be.

Varied – in other words, choose several activities that are different from each other. So, if you choose video gaming as one of your relaxation activities, make sure that you also choose things like going for a walk or having other exercise, meeting a friend for coffee, listening to music or whatever.

Deliberate – this is the interesting bit! The human brain is a predictable and easily-led thing. If your brain thinks (in other words, you think) that a certain activity is relaxing and you do it with the intention of relaxing, you are likely to gain greater relaxation benefit than if you just randomly do it without thinking. So, it’s likely to be more relaxing if you think to yourself, “I’m doing this gaming session to help me relax.”

C. Listen to your body and brain. When you’ve finished your gaming session, do you actually, honestly feel more relaxed? If you do, great. But if you don’t, consider two things:

  1. Do less of it – for your own health benefits
  2. Do something else as well – something that properly makes you feel relaxed.

D. Adults working with young people need to understand motivation theory. People are rarelydrive_book_page well-motivated by being told what to do. Or even, you may be surprised to know, by external rewards. For example, an adult saying either A) you mustn’t do that for longer than X hours or B) if you stop doing that after X hours I will let you do Y, is not motivating. The best motivation is “intrinsic”, in other words comes from the person himself wanting to do something (eg stopping gaming after one hour and going to do something else), expecting a benefit, doing the thing, experiencing the benefit and wanting to do it again. For a wonderful exposition of modern motivation theory, do read Daniel Pink’s Drive. It’s something I talk about in my INSET sessions and parent talks.

Does all that make sense? I’d LOVE to hear from anyone – gamers or parents/carers/teachers/librarians of gamers, with your thoughts, tips and insight.




7 Responses

  1. I think the challenge with all these comparisons is that ‘gaming’ – now – is such a huge field, with so many different manifestations, that most assessments seem quite limited. For instance how do you compare playing Spider Solitaire on your phone, with highly immersive war games on Steam, or AAA action adventure games with stunningly imaginative creations like Journey or Flower that for the player seem to be like experiencing an entirely new artform? I suspect the librarians sometimes know very little about the richness of contemporary games and gaming. Of course, the same could be said of reading. It depends what you read. I suppose the answer as usual is balance in all things!

    1. I do agree, very much. I think the question was about those immersive, rich games, though, rather than the solitaire-type things. My main focus in the answer relates to the amount of time spent, and I think that would be a problem whatever it was, but gaming happens to lend itself to excessive time

  2. Great post and points. The deliberate thing is so true and fascinating! I’ve noticed this in my work with adults too – being deliberate about recharging is more important than ‘what’ we do to recharge. In fact, when we’re not deliberate something that could be relaxing can easily become an extra chore on the to-do list.

    As a parent, I’ve noticed that there’s definitely a tipping point where with my kids (aged 7 and 10) where screen time goes from relaxing to agitating. We’ve started a ‘token system’ to help them to become more aware of this and to help them become more aware of the choices they make –

  3. I know that some (My son for example) find video games very relaxing but occasionally very frustrating, and that if he’s winning, then he’s relaxing, but the second the game starts getting the victory, he becomes annoyed. The problem with this is that if the game is too easy, he gets no relaxation from winning because it’s too easy and he hasn’t accomplished anything…

    When it comes to video games, it’s very easy to get all caught up in the game and lose all sense of time and reality because there’s often no one else present to mention that you’ve been on too long. I work a lot with tabletop games and the focus changes somewhat between the two different mediums, I find most tabletop games very relaxing, but a part of that is because I’m around a table with several other people and we’re interacting with each other in person rather than through a screen and speakers.

    I’ll certainly be interested to see how the new Pokemon Go game affects this particular quandary, given it’s physical component in actually having to hunt things down, I suspect it could very well be a (no pun intended) game changer.

    1. All good and interesting points, John. It sounds as though, on balance, video games aren’t wholly positive influences on stress for your son. If he is able to ration himself, that’s good, but if he feels it’s getting out of hand, that’s when i think it becomes more negative than positive. I think the key is to feel in control rather than to feel controlled.

      Table games bring in a whole load of extra positives that most video games don’t have, specifically that they involve face to face interaction (which we know has benefits) and that they don’t tend to last for hours and hours and hours.

      I agree about that Pokemon Go will be interesting!

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