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Susan Krauss Whitbourne Headshot

Addicted to Online Video Games? Don't Worry, You're Far From Alone

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Sparkling jewels, tempting candy, adorable pets and farm animals are the stuff of what the gaming industry calls "casual" video games. However, if you're an avid player, you know there's nothing casual about them. New research shows why so many of the over-50 are so hooked.

Millions of people around the world play one or more these casual video games. Unlike their alternative, the "hard core" or shoot-em-up types of video games, the casual video games present you with challenges in which you must make combinations of matching items or create a system to manage everything from farm animals to meals. Some games are virtual card or board games in which you compete against someone else in your friendship circle, or even a random stranger. Compared to what you hear about those hard core games such as Grant Theft Auto or Call of Duty, you feel pretty safe that by playing with these innocuous, if not cute, game stimuli, you're probably pretty safe.

You may also have heard about the cognitive benefits of video game playing for middle-aged and older adults. Ironically, some researchers believe that it's actually the first-person shooter games that give your attention the greatest boost. Because they present rapidly moving targets coming from multiple directions, they prime your ability to integrate complex information and then quickly prepare your response. Games using Nintendo Wii also get votes of approval from cognitive researchers because many of them get you physically moving, as well as mentally more active. They're a great way to overcome the sedentary lifestyle that predisposes so many of us to health problems and that extra layer of fat around the middle.

There's far less known about those highly popular casual video games. Although they've spread like wildfire throughout social media, particularly Facebook, they've been relatively overlooked by researchers. A few years ago I was introduced by one of my undergraduate research assistants to Bejeweled Blitz, one of the classics and most well-established Facebook game. She showed me how to play it, but alas, my score was pathetically low. I figured I'd see if I could redeem myself in her eyes and get at least a few thousand points (a bare minimum). As I fumbled my way through the one minute of rapid-fire matches flickering across the game board, I realized that I was getting some neurons to fire that normally didn't have quite that amount of pressure placed upon them to make quick decisions.

Before long, I decided that playing Bejeweled Blitz would be "good for me" and, as you might imagine, rationalized my way into longer and longer sessions. Fortunately, I resisted the urge to spend any more than a few minutes at a time on the game. I also realized that if I felt it was tightening up some loose connections in my brain, maybe the game could actually have beneficial effects on the cognitive skills that psychologists care about including attentional focus and response time.

Given my interest in the psychology of aging and, in particular, on how people cope with physical and cognitive changes, it seemed to me that older adults might be able to benefit the most from the challenges presented by Bejeweled Blitz and similar "tile-matching" games. They present rapidly-changing arrays and require the player to analyze these patterns and prepare responses within milliseconds. Because reaction time and attention are highly subject to aging's effects, the constant practice provided by the Bejeweled-type of game might prove beneficial in reversing some of those effects.

This was the background to what soon became a series of studies that took me in some very unexpected directions. With the help of Bejeweled Blitz's developer, Pop Cap, I conducted an online survey in which I asked users to report on their patterns of video game use as well as basic information about themselves (age, gender, education, occupation, and perceptions of the game and their patterns of game play). The results came thundering in, and overnight I had over 10,000 responses.

The results of this survey were just published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking with my very valuable undergraduate research assistants, Stacy Ellenberg and Kyoko Akimoto. Here are some of the surprising results we uncovered:

1. Lots of people play casual video games, and some do so for lots of time. One-third of the sample qualified as "heavy" players, meaning that they played several times a day for 31 to 60 minutes at a time. However, many people seem to limit their video game playing, or so they say.

2. The oldest group constituted the heaviest players. So much for thinking that youth are whiling away the hours playing video games. Over 40% of those 60 and older fit the criteria for heavy video game players.

3. Casual video game players enjoy competing against others. You might tend to think of video games as solitary activities, but our survey respondents were much more likely to cite social reasons for playing than even stress relief or mental challenge. Younger adults were most likely to enjoy the competitive features of these games, but many older players told us in their open-ended comments that online games give them the opportunity to connect with far-flung friends and relatives, including their grandchildren.

4. People feel better about their cognitive abilities when they play online games. Of the potential benefits of online games, our respondents cited feeling "sharper," quicker and better able to remember and see patterns. Older adults were more likely to endorse feeling that their mental abilities improved after playing these games and younger adults talked about the games sharpening their focus and mental awareness.

5. Online games are fun, but they can also be addictive. We never included questions about how addicted players felt to the games, but we certainly found out in the "other" responses categories how prevalent such experiences were. Over one-third talked about the game being fun, but a sizable proportion (15%) voluntarily admitted to being addicted.

Had we been conducting the study now, two years later, it's likely we would have included the newest entry into the online video game market, namely "Candy Crush." Unlike Bejeweled Blitz, Candy Crush is a progressive game leading you to levels of increasing difficulty that can keep players stuck for days or weeks. Also, unlike Bejeweled Blitz, Candy Crush monetizes its games. You can buy boosters, extra moves, and extra lives for what seem like small amounts of money but which, over time, can add up to a tidy sum. Finally, Candy Crush plays music that can invoke a trance-like state; on the one hand relaxing you but on the other, penetrating your consciousness to the point, I imagine, where you can't get it out of your head like a bad commercial jingle.

It's hard to know where all this is leading if Candy Crush becomes replaced by an even more addictive option ("Flappy Bird" is trending at the moment). However, online video games like Bejeweled Blitz don't seem to be as much of a brain drain as critics like to argue. If you avoid paying to boost your scores but rely on your mental abilities (a natural temptation), you may actually develop more focused attention, connect to others in your social networks, and find a pleasant way to pass time when you're bored or just looking for a mental break. Your neurons will thank you!

Reference:

Whitbourne, S. K., Ellenberg, S. R., & Akimoto, K. (2013). Reasons for playing casual video games and perceived benefits among adults 18 to 80 years old. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16, 892-897.