May 16, 2023
Game Your Way To Better Mental Health
How Mobile Games Can Reduce Stress and Boost Mental Wellbeing
On May 7, 2023, the World Health Organization announced that the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer considered a global health emergency. While we may feel like breathing a sigh of relief, many of us continue to feel the lingering effects of the stress, isolation, and uncertainty of the last few years on our mental health.
So this month, let’s talk about mental health; specifically, the power of mobile games to help us manage stress and boost our mental wellbeing.
In this article, we’ll explore different ways that mobile games can be helpful for reducing our stress levels, and provide suggestions for maximizing the benefits while avoiding the potential negative impacts. Before we dive in, remember that everyone’s mental health journey is unique, so it’s important to find what works best for you and build your own toolkit of coping mechanisms.
Mobile Games For Stress Relief
You probably know that stress, anxiety, and burnout can all have negative effects on our mental health over time, but did you know that mobile games can actually help us manage stress? With their low cost, high engagement, and wide reach, mobile games are becoming a popular tool for boosting mental health. While more research is needed to fully understand their effectiveness, it’s been determined that mobile games can have significant benefits when it comes to stress relief.
At a high level, this is because of their ability to:
- Provide a distraction: mobile games can give us an outlet to step away from a situation that is causing us stress, much like reading a book or watching a movie.
- Engage the brain: studies have shown that problem-solving games can be especially effective for stress release as they can help us direct our creative energy towards a problem we feel we can solve.
- Connect us: multiplayer and social games have the ability to connect us with our communities and extend our social support systems.
That said, the reality is that everyone copes with stress differently and depending on our individual needs, some mobile game genres may be more or less effective at reducing our stress.
So let’s break it down. Here’s a few examples of mobile game genres and the potentially positive (and negative) impacts they can have on our stress levels:
Idle games (also sometimes referred to as clicker games, tap games, or incremental games) can offer a low-stress, low-pressure way for players to pass the time and relax. In addition to providing a distraction, the idle genre’s stress-relieving potential stems from its ability to provide players with a sense of accomplishment and progress without requiring sustained focus or effort. Additionally, most idle games have a low barrier to entry, with little to no practice required to begin making progress in the game.
⚠️ Some players may feel compelled to constantly check on and tend their in-game progress, which can have the adverse effect of leading to time management issues and creating unwanted anxiety. Limiting playing time and setting boundaries for yourself on when it’s appropriate to check in on the game can help mitigate this risk factor.
Examples of idle games include:
AdCap is the perfect game for anyone looking to gain a sense of accomplishment (and power!) in a short period of time. Players tap their way to riches, becoming the master of their own destiny along the way!
The simple narrative and idle elements of this game give players the reassurance of knowing their cats are always there, making soup for them–even when you need a break from the game.
A great game for plant lovers, Terrarium: Garden Idle allows players to discover, collect, and grow plants inside a virtual greenhouse. Plus, unlike real plants, these plants won’t die if you take a break!
Like idle games, puzzle apps are often designed to be played in short sessions, making them an easy and convenient way to take a break from work. Most puzzle apps are designed to encourage problem-solving and critical thinking, which can reduce stress over time by boosting our cognitive functions. They can also provide us with a sense of satisfaction when the puzzle is solved.
⚠️ Some people may become frustrated by difficult puzzles or feel pressure in timed challenges, which is counter-intuitive to the stress-reducing benefits of these apps. Taking breaks when you’re feeling frustrated, or adjusting the difficulty level of the puzzles can help mitigate this potential risk factor.
Examples of puzzle apps include:
The visually stunning graphics of Monument Valley, combined with the puzzle element make it a soothing option for stress relief.
Candy Crush Saga combines engaging visuals with satisfying puzzles. It also allows users to play with friends, combining the stress-relieving potential of puzzle and social games in one.
Described as a gentle journey into color and perception, I Love Hue combines the satisfaction of solving a puzzle with calming and tranquil colors to sooth the mind.
Meditation & Mindfulness Apps
Mindfulness and meditation apps are what most people think of when they hear “mobile games” and “stress-reduction”. These apps are designed to incorporate techniques like deep breathing and visualization that have been shown to reduce stress and improve overall well being. Like idle games, the ability to engage with the app in short sessions makes them a quick and convenient tool to leverage when you feel your stress levels rising. Furthermore, these apps provide an accessible way for individuals to learn and practice these techniques on their own, without prior experience or training.
⚠️ While the guided nature of these apps can be helpful for individuals who are new to mindfulness, some users may become too focused on “doing it right” and feel discouraged if they don’t achieve the desired result. You can avoid this potential stressor by approaching these apps from a perspective of curiosity and exploration, rather than achieving a specific outcome.
Examples of meditation and mindfulness apps include:
FitMind provides guided training and daily challenges to help users learn the fundamentals of meditation.
Calm offers an extensive library of guided meditations, sleep stories, music, and stretching exercises, designed to quiet the mind and help users relax.
A great option for players who are short on time, Headspace is designed to help users make mindfulness a daily habit, through short guided exercises.
Apps that encourage physical exercise and activity can also have positive impacts on our stress levels. These apps might include AR (augmented reality) apps like Pokémon GO that superimpose game elements onto the real world, requiring players to navigate their physical environment in order to make progress. It also includes games like Zombies, Run! which combines a workout app with augmented audio cues that encourage the user to adjust their speed as the narrative unfolds. By encouraging physical activity and outdoor time, these apps can reduce stress and improve our mood, while providing a sense of adventure and exploration that keeps us moving.
⚠️ While these apps are designed to motivate us, be aware that the leaderboards and social elements of physical apps can sometimes lead us to feel discouraged if we are at a different place than others. Focusing on your personal progress by setting individual, achievable goals, rather than comparing your progress to others, can help mitigate this potential risk factor.
Examples of physical apps include:
Pokémon GO uses AR to encourage players to explore the world around them, allowing the player to find and catch pokemon while navigating their physical environment.
A great option for those concerned about the possibility of a zombie apocalypse (or those who need a bit of extra motivation!), Zombies, Run! uses audio augmentation to unfold a story as the player runs in real time.
Fit For Battle is an iPhone running app that transforms the user’s workout into an epic fitness-based RPG, using audio cues to unfold the story based on the player’s performance.
Apps and games that incorporate a social element have been shown to reduce stress, as they can provide us a way to connect with like-minded communities and extend our social support networks. This is particularly true of social games that encourage cooperation and teamwork, as progress in these types of games often comes along with feelings of camaraderie and shared accomplishments.
⚠️ Whenever an app or game includes a social component, there is always the possibility that instances of cyberbullying or online harassment can happen, even in communities with moderation tools in place. Additionally, players in social games may feel pressured to constantly interact with others or be online. Setting boundaries around interactions with other players, reporting any instances of harassment or bullying, and focusing on playing with friends and people who create a positive gaming environment, are all tactics to mitigate these potential risk factors.
Examples of social apps include:
Words With Friends combines the cognitive stress-reducing benefits of classic puzzle games, with the social benefits of connecting with friends, old and new.
Players can access the social benefits of Clash Royale by joining a clan to team up with other players, share resources, and take on battle challenges together.
Chess Time is a massive online global chess community that allows players to play and connect with friends and fellow chess-lovers from around the world.
In recent years, the realization that mobile games can positively contribute to mental health has led to the development of apps specifically designed to be used as tools for mental health care. For example, the use of games as a tool for therapy is gaining popularity, with studies evaluating the effectiveness of games for treating conditions like anxiety and depression. While research into the effectiveness of these treatments is ongoing, there are some apps already on the market that incorporate positive psychology and cognitive-therapy based mechanics to boost player’s mental health.
⚠️ Remember that mobile apps developed for the management or treatment of mental health conditions should be used as a complementary tool in mental health treatment, and not as a replacement for traditional therapy or medicine. While the potential of these apps to improve access to mental health care has been noted, researchers caution that more research is needed on the effectiveness of games for mental health treatment before any conclusions can be made.
Examples of science-based apps include:
SuperBetter is designed to help individuals build resilience and cope with anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Incorporating elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy and positive psychology, SuperBetter encourages players to set goals and complete challenges to improve their mental health. The app has been mentioned in more than a dozen scientific journal articles on the topic of mental health.
Moodfit is designed to help individuals track their mood and develop positive habits to boost their mental health. The game includes daily mood tracking, guided meditations, and other tools to help individuals manage their stress and anxiety. MindFit has been voted Best Overall Mental Health App for three years running.
Happify uses positive psychology techniques to help individuals improve their mental well-being. The game includes a variety of activities, such as guided meditations, gratitude exercises, and mindfulness practices, designed to boost mood and reduce stress. Like other mindfulness apps, it’s designed to boost the player’s emotional well being in sessions of any length.
How To Maximize The Benefits (and avoid the pitfalls!)
When it comes to maximizing the benefits of mobile games for mental health, much like anything else, moderation is key. It’s important to remember that excessive gaming and screen time can be detrimental to our mental health, if we’re not careful to set boundaries around our use.
Here are some tips to help you maximize the benefits of mobile games while avoiding the potential negative impacts:
- Set limits on your gaming time: It’s important to set boundaries on your mobile gaming time to avoid excessive play that can lead to negative consequences like addiction and social isolation.
- Choose games that incorporate mindfulness techniques: Games that incorporate mindfulness techniques, such as meditation and deep breathing, can be particularly effective in reducing stress and anxiety.
- Play games that challenge your brain: Puzzle games and strategy games can help to improve cognitive function and reduce the risk of developing cognitive disorders later in life.
- Take frequent breaks: It’s important to take frequent breaks from gaming to avoid eye strain and reduce the risk of developing other physical health problems associated with excessive screen time.
- Use games as a tool for distraction (not avoidance): Mobile games can be a helpful tool for distraction during times of stress or anxiety. When feeling overwhelmed, take a break and play a game that helps you relax and focus, but be mindful you’re not using the game to avoid doing something else.
- Play games that encourage social interaction: Games that encourage social interaction can be a great way to improve mood and reduce feelings of loneliness.
While everyone’s mental health journey is unique, studies have found that mobile games are a tool that can help us manage our stress levels and boost our mental health. This is because they provide a low-stakes, low-pressure environment in which we can build and develop our toolkit of coping skills. Additionally, mobile games can provide us with a sense of control, agency, accomplishment, and purpose, as well as connect us with our communities and social support systems–all of which can be beneficial for our mental health.
It should be noted that some genres of mobile games may be more effective at reducing stress than others: idle games, puzzle apps, mindfulness apps, physical apps, social apps, and science-based apps are a few genres that can have positive impacts on our stress levels. However, the effectiveness of these genres will vary based on the player’s individual needs. Regardless of what games you find most effective for stress management, it’s important to be mindful of the risks that come along with them, and take steps to mitigate these potentially negative impacts.
So this Mental Health Awareness Month, go ahead, grab your phone, and find a game that helps you destress and feel better!
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