Can’t stop worrying? Why video games help

When people come out of the flow state, they feel energized and refreshed — not exhausted from hours of intense work and focus like you might expect.

“Video games are one of the best ways to get into flow,” said Kate Sweeny, professor of psychology at UC Riverside. “We know from lots of research that flow is most likely to occur if we do something that’s hard, that’s engaging, that’s active. Not something that’s just passive like sitting and watching TV, scrolling through social media.”

Here’s the recipe for a good flow activity: 

  1. It needs clear goals. 

  2. It challenges you a bit.

  3. It gives you immediate, unambiguous feedback on how you’re doing. 

You can see how most video games match this description. 

Putting video games to the test

Sweeny wanted to measure the effect that the flow state has on someone in a stressful situation.

Imagine you’re waiting to hear back about a job interview, a college application or the results of a medical test. Waiting, some might say,is the hardest part.

“I’ve been really obsessed with the experience of waiting because it’s such a uniquely stressful experience,” explained Sweeny. “You combine two existentially challenging states of mind: uncertainty (not knowing what’s coming) and powerlessness (not having any control over your future).”

So she brought 290 undergrads into the lab and found a way to get them a little stressed out.

“What do college students care about? Well, like most people, college students probably care about whether their peers find them attractive,” Sweeny explained.

When they arrived in the lab, participants had their picture taken and were told that other students would be rating the photo.

Don’t worry, no one actually rated them, but it was an effective way to get people a little stressed out.

While they waited to hear their supposed rating, they got to play the classic 80s video game Tetris. The participants were divided into three groups, each playing a different version of Tetris:

Group 1: Easy. Group 2: Normal. Group 3: Difficult.

It’s hard to get into a state of flow if an activity is too easy or too difficult. Sweeny’s study confirmed this: the people who played Tetris the normal way — where the game gets more challenging over time — reported a lot more flow than people in the other groups. And they also felt less worried and reported more positive feelings while they waited.

Sweeny saw these results echoed in research she did during the peak of China’s COVID-19 quarantine. She worked with a team of Chinese researchers to survey people who were stuck in isolation, ranging from ages 15-71.

Her study found that people who passed the time with flow activities reported less severe depressive symptoms, less loneliness and more healthy behaviors. And the benefits became greater as the quarantine dragged on.

The U.S. experienced something similar during COVID-19. “This was a period where everyone was making bread and you couldn’t get puzzles online because they were completely sold out. People may not have known to call that flow, but I have a sense that people were seeking that effect of flow that would make that period of uncertainty and isolation pass a bit more quickly,” said Sweeny.

The right kind of distraction

From an evolutionary perspective, worry does serve a purpose. It’s really good at making us pay attention to threats or prepare for problems that might pop up in the future. Because worry feels uncomfortable, it motivates us to try to prevent bad things from happening and to take control of our own fate.

Flow can be an obstacle if you’re using it to avoid dealing with problems or thinking about the future. “If you just want to do that activity all the time and you can’t pull yourself out of that flow state, that’s really where video games can become problematic,” Sweeny explains.

On the other hand, once you’ve taken action, you don’t want stress and anxiety to take over your life. That’s where the right kind of distraction comes in handy.

When you’re in the flow state, you’re so focused on a specific activity that it shuts off the stress and worries that might otherwise be rattling around in your brain. Doom scrolling or binging a new show on Netflix won’t activate the flow state though.

“One of the great things about flow is we can all do it and flow is really personal in some sense — it’s matched to what you find interesting and enjoyable and challenging,” said Sweeny.

🧠  The research highlighted in this article was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BCS-1251672).

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