Mobile games a ‘maladaptive’ way to beat boredom

Playing too long may lead to addiction, means less time is available for healthier pursuits, and can increase depression.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read July 21, 2021
Young Asian man lying on cozy sofa, playing games on his smart phone, happy leisure activity

people who experience intense boredom frequently in everyday life reported playing smartphone games to escape or alleviate these feelings of boredom. GETTY

People who use smartphone games to escape reality may be losing out on life, according to a new study that warns of the dangers of disappearing into a digital device for extended periods of time.

The study, conducted at the University of Waterloo and published in the journal Computer in Human Behaviour, found that people who have difficulty engaging with the real world are attracted to activities that produce a sense of “flow” — an effortless state of concentration in which engrossing activities decrease one’s awareness of time and space.

“We found that people who experience intense boredom frequently in everyday life reported playing smartphone games to escape or alleviate these feelings of boredom,” said Chanel Larche, lead author of the study and a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience at Waterloo. “The problem with this boredom ‘fix’ is that they end up playing whenever they are bored and end up experiencing problems tied to excessive game play.

“During gameplay, players may achieve optimal arousal, engaged focus and attention and a reduction in feelings of monotony but this heightened urge-to-play among escape players can have negative consequences and lead to excessive time gaming.”

For the study, researchers recruited 60 participants who had reached a level between 77 and 3307 in Candy Crush, a popular, free-to-play game available on most mobile devices. Participants were required to play the game at difficulty settings that ranged from too easy (where a lack of balance between skill and challenge was suspected to induce low flow and low arousal) to balanced (where the relationship between skill and challenge was thought to be more conducive to entering a higher state of flow).

They found that players who used the game to mitigate the effects of boredom became more immersed in Candy Crush than those who did not use the app as a means of escape. The more rewarding the escape from boredom became, the more inclined this group was to increase the frequency and length of time spent crushing candy, to the detriment of other areas of their lives.

“Those who play to escape experience greater flow and positive affect than other players, which sets up a cycle of playing video games to elevate a depressed mood,” Dixon said. “This is maladaptive because, although it elevates your mood, it also increases your urge to keep playing.

“Playing too long may lead to addiction and means less time is available for other healthier pursuits. This can actually increase your depression.”

Researchers hope the study’s findings encourage game developers to take more responsible measures when designing games, including using time limits to track and limit play time and prevent digital diversions from monopolizing excessive amounts of time. The less challenging a game becomes, the less likely players are to lose themselves in it.

“Those who game to escape demonstrated greater arousal and urge-to-play following gameplay than non-escape players — but only for optimally challenging games,” the study concludes. “Findings converge to suggest that bored escape players may seek flow and its consequent positive affect for relief from states of hypo-arousal and monotony through optimally challenging games.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer


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