16 mins read

Stress is defined as mental, emotional, or physical strain or tension. Stress affects every human being and is a part of our everyday lives, both positive and negative. But how does stress correlate to video games?

Video games are under constant scrutiny for the supposed negative impact they can have on players, perhaps more so than ever after the grievous events that took place in the Sandy Hook tragedy. Violence is in the news every day of our lives and many people try to find parallels between the violence created in the real world and the violence found in the media. Movies and books were once the targets of the criticism, but it’s the interactive nature of video games that has now drawn the attention of lawmakers and lobbyists.

Stress is one area of concern for the ‘games as negative health’ campaigners, specifically the stresses related to video games being by nature a highly competitive activity. However, according to Dr. Michael Fraser, a renowned psychologist that specialises in video game addiction, there’s no default by which we can assume that games generate stress.

“Video games can absolutely be a stress reliever,” Fraser said. A quick Google search will show that there are numerous scientific studies conducted through universities that have proven that video games to be a stress reliever, and indeed, even violent video games can reduce stress levels.

With that said, games can have a negative impact on players as well. For instance, the freemium model that many developers and publishers have adopted for mobile titles relies on finding an audience of ‘whales’ – that small percentage of game players with addictive personalities that will spend beyond their means to get further in the game. This quite demonstrably leads to elevated stress levels within the player. With the mainstream media and lawmakers being quick to place blame on video games when tragic events take place, it has more or less become commonplace for the game’s industry to avoid or dismiss any discussion in regards to the negative effects that are very real and affect many gamers today. But with no discussion, there is no education; without education, the lack of knowledge can allow something like a video gaming hobby to become a major addiction problem not unlike gambling or drugs.

Some players might be able to play a game for many hours per day, having fun and possibly relieving the day’s stress in the process, but for others, these very same actions over the same course of time could be extremely harmful to their everyday lives. As an industry, it is becoming important to highlight some of the common things to look out for in regards to video game addiction, what to do if there might be an issue occurring, and then looking at a few practical things that can be done to help break the addiction.

Spot the early warning signs
While understanding how addiction works is often a straightforward matter for a psychologist, it isn’t always the case with video games. According to Fraser, the issues start with child and teenage gamers. Sometimes parents have no idea what is going on in their childrens’ rooms and when they see them on their computers, they assume there is so much worse that they could be doing. While there’s nothing wrong with children using computers or playing games, parents absolutely should be involved with what their kids are playing and how much time they are spending with those devices.

“I feel so bad for parents when they get to me and it is just a mess, because they never set the limits,” Fraser said. “The parents say to me ‘I thought he was in his room on his computer and doing his homework. They aren’t on the streets, they are not doing drugs and they aren’t in a gang,’ and then they’re surprised when all of sudden, things turn and they go from what seemed to be a good situation, to a very bad situation so quickly.”

“I don’t think a lot of parents even see it coming.”

By the time that an unengaged parent realises that there is a problem it will stem from significant problems, such as their child’s grades falling in school, they develop a withdrawn demeanour or loss of hygiene. By then, the child’s addiction has taken root. This can lead to them having withdrawal symptoms, much like a drug addict, when the parent seeks to address the issue, and this can lead to parents being physically assaulted when they tried to take control of the situation. By then, the situation is one that is ripe for the anti-games advocates to pick up on and use as an example of destructive behaviour caused by games.

In regards to young adult and adult gamers, these groups need to set for themselves limits when it comes to playing video games as either a hobby or a way to relieve the day’s stresses. These people are not immune to addictive behaviour, however. “The problem is when people can’t find a balance with the games, especially if it is interfering with their sleep,” Fraser said. For these groups, addiction is potentially even more damaging because there isn’t necessarily someone around who can pick up on problem behaviour.

Supplement vs. Replacement
Why do gamers play video games? Specifics differs for every different individual, but as a general rule, gaming is an accessible form of interactive entertainment that is enjoyed by millions of gamers worldwide, not unlike other commonplace forms of entertainment: books, movies, physical exercise, dancing, etc. Gamers typically just want to have fun, regardless if that comes from a casual game of Bejeweled or an intense online match of Call of Duty.

It is also either being used in a supplement or replacement; basic psychology terms that mean that as a supplement, gaming would be but one part of a person’s assortment of pastimes/ hobbies, whereas someone who uses video games as a replacement would replace their daily responsibilities with a video game. It’s those people that use it as a replacement that are potentially going to run into problems in treating games like a stress relief tool.

“If that thing that you’re calling a stress reliever becomes your only source of relieving your stress, then I think you’re handicapping yourself,” Fraiser said. People need to do more than just go to work/school and play video games, and people should be exercising, spending time with family, keeping a clean home, and have daily social interactions that don’t involve a ‘screen.’

When video games become that go to thing to escape our responsibilities that they become problematic, and possibly addictive. “People who are more at risk are those who tend to be depressed, anxious, or prone to anxiety, and may end up using these types of games and types of technology to avoid their responsibilities… this only has the effect of creating more anxiety for them and doesn’t actually achieve a reduction in.” If the replacement habit goes on for too long, the end results could potentially become shattering; peer avoidance, termination from employment, loss of home, failed marriage and destroyed credit ratings.

Should certain game types be avoided?
It’s common to hear about “Call of Duty,” “Grand Theft Auto” and “World of Warcraft” being the top three ‘bad boys’ in the gaming industry. So, should people avoid these games? Not in themselves; the reason these three games are so regularly criticised is that they offer a deep well of content, and so players that get hooked end up spending more time with these games, giving them longer to become part of a destructive behaviour pattern.

It would seem the online play, which provides essentially endless content and is critical to two of the three games listed above, is cause of many of the problems behind these games. “I’ve had significantly more calls from parents since Xbox went live,” Fraser said. “I’m not singling out Xbox Live but people seem to get really stuck on open-ended types of games. These are the games that parents need to be careful with for their kids.”

But what about the casual titles? Games like Candy Crush Saga and Farmville are worlds apart in terms of content to Call of Duty, and for now have a better public perception, and yet these games continually top the charts for highest revenue. These games are by design aimed to addict gamers and one would assume that that makes them part of the problem that can lead players into a downward spiral of replacement behaviour, but casual games have one key differentiating factor that makes them less of a risk activity; people tend to get bored of the games quickly. “When these games first come out, there tends to be a spike in interest, but at some point it will hopefully come down,” Fraser said. “It tends to be a normal human process when we get our hands on something shiny and new. Compared to some other types of games, relatively few keep playing to the point where the game interferes with lifestyle.”

But the Free-to-Play market has another element to it that could potentially create an issue for gamers, and this lies within many of these titles’ social elements. Many times these games ask you to invite friends, ask for additional turns, or share your in-game earnings on Facebook or other social media outlets. These messages can become extremely bothersome to others who might not want to be pestered with things of this nature – creating another kind of real-world issue for the player amongst their friends and/or family.

I think I’m addicted; I think I need help.
As with other forms of addiction, people tend to know on some level that they have a problem. While the early signs could be easily missed or ignored, a lack of grooming, unkempt living quarters, poor dietary intake, limited to no social interactions and so on tend to be noticable and harder to excuse internally.

Moderation management is the goal for these people that can self-identify they have a problem, according to Fraser. “One of the first steps is to take a 30 day break and take a look at how you’re feeling, thinking and make it through your day in the next 30 days.” Fraser said. “This allows people to see just how all consuming the habit has become.”

“If this [30 day break] creates more anxiety for them, these people might want to seek some professional help.”

If one thing is clear, it is that ‘screens’ are going to be a part of our everyday life from this point forward, as tablets and smartphones consistently make our lives more accessible. These screens are not in themselves a problem and in fact it’s impossible to resist, according to Fraser. “I think that learning on a screen is the way of the future. We need to make sure that we are teaching our children how to function with the screen world and the real world,” Fraser said.

The key, moving forward, will be how the games industry matures in terms of offering support networks for people that take things too far. The gambling industry has hotline numbers and addiction support networks, and it may well be that in order to avoid government regulation into the future, the games industry should take the initiative itself to use the data it collects from its players online to identify and proactively assist potential problem members in the community.

– Chris I.

Additional reporting by
– Nick H.
Senior Journalist

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