Video games as a form of stress relief

Excess stress can lead to headaches, fatigue, sleep problems, bouts of anger and depression, and increases the risk for drug and alcohol abuse. According to the 2016 Stress in America report published by the American Psychological Association, 34 percent of Americans reported an overall increase of stress from the past year.

So, how do we combat something that is increasingly-present in our lives? Video games, surprisingly.

Console Playstation Xbox Joystick Video Games

Playstation controllers. (Creative Commons)

The Studies

In 2009, the team of Carmen V. Russioniello, Kevin O’Brien, and Jennifer M. Parks published a study, “The Effectiveness of Casual Video Games in Improving Mood and Decreasing Stress.”  Casual video games (CVGs) in the study are recognized by the definition set by the Casual Games Association in 2007, described in the research abstract as:


Bejeweled 2 is a gem themed match-three  puzzle game. (Matthew Keefe, Attribution)

“CVGs must be considered fun, quick to access, easy to learn, and require no previous video game skills, expertise, or regular time commitment to play.”

The games used in the study were Bejeweled 2, Bookworm Adventures, and Peggle. After playing one of the three games, participants completed a Profile of Mood States assessment. In nearly all cases, after playing one of the CVGs, players reported a decrease in tension, depression, anger, fatigue, and confusion, and an increase in vigor.

In 2014, another study on the topic was done at the University of Central Florida. Together, the team produced a poster, “Casual Video Games Reduce Stress and Improve Mood,” that was presented at the Human Factors and Applied Psychology Student Conference 2015.

The study compared CVGs alongside guided relaxation and breaks as forms of stress relief. After putting participants through a 15-minute “vigilance” test, a test that measures reaction time to visual stimulus, they were asked to engage in one of the three relaxation methods.

Results showed that playing the CVG Sushi Cat 2 for 5 minutes was the most effective way to reduce stress and improve mood. Guided relaxation was also shown to be effective, but less so than playing casual video games. Taking a break was shown to be the least effective of the three methods.

I spoke with Dr. Dan McConnell, one of the researchers on the study, about his thoughts on what this new information means for high-stress environments. He explained that, most of all, this study shows that as part of a high-stress lifestyle, people need breaks in order to function at their best. Types of meditation and body-awareness methods have, throughout the years, been shown to be effective for reducing stress. Adding video games into the mix, Dr. McConnell said:

“The fact that playing a video game could get equal, if not better effects compared to that [relaxation method], that was a little bit surprising.”

Stress relief alternatives

Of course, CVGs make up only one of many ways that can be used to manage stressful situations. I spoke with the Assistant Director of Community Prevention and Intervention Services at Cal Poly: San Luis Obispo Dr. Hannah Roberts, who talked about a lot of baseline strategies for maintaining a healthy stress level.

The first thing to watch is the amount of sleep you get. Most people need between 7 – 9 hours sleep to function properly. Stimulants such as caffeine and cigarettes can elevate stress levels, so those should be minimized, especially when dealing with a lot of stress. Even depressants, such as alcohol, can create extra stress for the body.

After that, making sure you get enough exercise, are spending time outside, and are eating properly all go a long way to managing the stressors in life.