A new study by researchers at the University of Waterloo in Canada has presented an interesting angle to the effect of mobile gaming on the human mind. According to the findings of this study, smartphone gaming can be harmful to players who play to escape their negative mood and feelings of boredom.
The researchers found that bored “escape players” -- referring to those who have difficulty engaging with the real environment and sustaining attention -- may seek “flow,” which is a deep, effortless state of concentration in an activity linked to loss of awareness of time and space.
This is a term which was first coined by the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975. In simple terms, ‘flow’ means being deeply immersed in a feeling of energized focus, total involvement, and enjoyment in the process of any activity.
For this study, the researchers used the popular smartphone game ‘Candy Crush’. Sixty participants with current level standings in the game between 77 and 3307 played at various difficulty levels: from ‘too easy’ -- which meant there was a lack of skill-challenge balance, low flow and low arousal -- to ‘balanced’, which was more challenging and that caused greater flow, arousal, less boredom and a stronger urge to continue gameplay. “This was done to determine whether players would choose to continue playing a game where there was a balance of challenge and skill conducive to flow, rather than an easier game that would generate less flow,” an official release on the study explains.
The study -- titled “Winning isn't everything: The impact of optimally challenging smartphone games on flow, game preference and individuals gaming to escape aversive bored states” -- appears in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. It was co-authored by Chanel Larche, a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience at Waterloo, and Waterloo's cognitive neuroscience professor Michael Dixon.
“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 Larche. "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,” she adds. During gameplay, players may achieve optimal arousal, engaged focus and attention and a reduction in feelings of monotony. But the heightened urge to play among escape players can have negative consequences and also lead to excessive game time, Larche explains.
The findings further explain that individuals who try to escape boredom by using smartphone games -- such as Candy Crush -- become more immersed or involved in gameplay than the “non-escape” or regular players. However, when these escape players find the games more rewarding as a relief from boredom, they may play on for longer periods and more frequently. This is where it starts to go wrong for them. “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 explains in the release. “This is maladaptive because, although it elevates your mood, it also increases your urge to keep playing.”
Spending too much time on mobile gaming can often amount to addiction, where players might end up devoting less time to other habits and activities. Larche explains in the release that these findings might encourage game developers and designers to consider implementing responsible video-gaming tools within their games. For instance, having a time-limit option to allow players to specify how long they wish to play could be helpful for players susceptible to problematic escape play.