Stress-Busting Game Play

12/01/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

On the cusp of electing a new president, and in the midst of unprecedented economic uncertainty and geo-political shifts, there's plenty of garden-variety stress to go around. More people are looking for ways to escape from reality these days. Right?

Many are finding relief by indulging in casual games -- puzzles, cards, arcade games, online versions of Scrabble and other popular board games. There are tons of websites where you can download games for free via "try before you buy," ad-supported versions but even premium versions of popular games don't cost much -- anywhere from $9.95 to $19.95 for several levels of game play that takes hours and hours of time. There's a lot of entertainment value in casual games and fans say they're every bit as addictive as the big console games like Halo II on the Xbox 360.

One games developer that's making the most of the public's insatiable appetite for casual games is PopCap Games, creator of the popular Bejeweled franchise along with titles including Peggle, Bookworm, Chuzzle, Feeding Frenzy and Zuma. PopCap recently showed off Bejeweled Twist, the third installment in the franchise, to the press, analysts and fans. What's the "twist" on Twist? When players select jewel matches, the jewels make a circular motion so you're essentially rotating a group of four gems in a clockwise direction to create three-, four- and five-jewel matches. There's even a stress-free Zen mode where you can play uninterrupted by noisy "bomb" gems and lockouts.

Nancy and Michael Rawls, who I met at the glitzy launch party for Bejeweled Twist, assure me that spending hours swapping brightly colored gems around is sufficiently absorbing, and even rather challenging. The 50-something couple from Issiquah, Wash. each spend at least two hours a day in front of Bejeweled 2. "I don't watch TV or read the paper, it's too depressing. I sit and play takes your mind off everything," Nancy says. She's apparently not alone.

The casual games sector, projected to grow to nearly $8 billion over the next couple of years, may also be relatively resistant to the economic woes plaguing other consumer categories. For one thing, casual games are a relatively inexpensive means of entertainment -- you can play a lot of titles for free. Increasingly, casual games are played on a variety of platforms -- the Web, computers, various mobile devices (cell phones, smartphones, PDAs, Pocket PCs, iPods, iPhones), game consoles (such as the Xbox and DS) and in-flight entertainment systems. The graphics and sound effects are cool and you can play during work breaks (in short bursts of five to 15 minutes) or while you're waiting for someone who's chronically late. The data varies, but some estimates put the number of people who indulge in casual games online at 200 million a month.

Bejeweled is a decent example of the power of such games: According to PopCap, more than 350 million copies of Bejeweled 1 and 2 have been downloaded from the Web. Bejeweled 1 debuted in 2000, right around the dotcom meltdown. Notably, 76 percent of Bejeweled players are women, 89 percent are 30 and older, and 71 percent are age 40 and older.

As far as stress relief goes, there's some evidence that casual games might be helpful. A study conducted this spring by East Carolina University's Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies measured the stress-relieving and other mood-lifting effects of casual video games. The study used the puzzle and word games Bejeweled 2, Peggle and Bookworm Adventures and found that Bejeweled help players reduce physical stress in the body by 54 percent compared to a control group.

The study found that players of Peggle experienced an average 66 percent reduction in stress, compared to a 36 percent reduction among those who played Bejeweled 2 and a 24 percent reduction among players of Bookworm Adventures. With respect to Peggle, female subjects accounted for two-thirds of the overall decline in stress after playing that game.

Dr. Carl G. Arinoldo, a Stony Brook, N.Y.-based psychologist and author who specializes in stress management and parenting, has "prescribed" casual games to both parents and kids: "It works. As human beings we can't think of two competing forces at precisely the same time. The games are so attractive. They hold your attention, they help with concentration and focusing. You get into the game so your mind is focused which is a benign kind of thing. The negative stuff that's going on around you kind of gets held at bay," Arinoldo says. "The beauty of it is it's not that expensive, everybody has a computer today. Some of the games you can get on cell, on iPod, on a Blackberry. The games are very easy to learn and they're engrossing."

Analysts say recession or not, look for more casual games to become available on a variety of platforms, especially on mobile devices. And expect entertainment giants like Disney, Electronic Arts, Microsoft and Sony to make aggressive forays into the casual games market within the next year.

While casual games like Scrabble are already popular applications on Facebook, they don't tend to lend themselves to the kind of online synchronous gameplay, chat and rabid competition that action-oriented multiplayer games on Xbox Live do. Yet titles like Bejeweled seem ripe for, among other things, sharing scores with friends, bragging rights with respect to levels of play and building up status points. Casual games will become a major factor on social networks of all kinds, according to Billy Pidgeon, who analyzes the gaming market for IDC.

Casual games "aren't a multiplayer experience in the same way that Gears of War is, but you can still compete asynchronously," Pidgeon says. Bejeweled Twist offers a new way to move the jewels, various goals/challenges and levels of play including those dubbed "Survivor," "Voltage," and "Detonator".