Digital games may beat mindfulness apps at relieving stress

Summary: Playing digital games on a cell phone may help reduce stress following a tough day at work. Researchers found those who played shape-fitting games felt less stressed than those who chose to use mindfulness apps.

Source: University of Bath

Digital games, typical of those used on smartphones, may relieve stress after a day’s work more effectively than mindfulness apps, according to a study by UCL in London and the University of Bath.

In the study, published in JMIR Mental Health, participants were given a 15-minute maths test and then asked to either play a shape-fitting game or use a mindfulness app. Those in a control group were given a fidget-spinner toy.

Participants who played the shape-fitting game (“Block! Hexa Puzzle”) reported feeling more energized and less tired afterward, while those in the mindfulness and fidget-spinner groups reported the opposite: their level of “energetic arousal” appeared to decline.

In a second part of the study, participants who played a shape-fitting game after arriving home from work for five days reported feeling more relaxed by the end of the week than those who were asked to use a mindfulness app.

Study co-author Professor Anna Cox (UCL Interaction Centre) said: “Far from feeling guilty about being absorbed by their phone, people who play such games after a stressful day at work should know they are likely to be gaining a real benefit.”

Lead author Dr. Emily Collins, of the University of Bath, who started the research while at UCL, said: “To protect our long-term health and well-being, we need to be able to unwind and recuperate after work. Our study suggests playing digital games can be an effective way to do this.”

The authors noted that digital games appear to fulfill four criteria necessary for post-work recovery: they tend to be relaxing, they provide opportunities for mastering a new skill, they are highly immersive and distracting, and they allow people to feel in control.

While previous research has found an association between playing games and improved recovery after work, the authors attempted to establish a causal connection.

The first part of the study was a lab experiment in which 45 students aged between 19 and 36 were given a series of maths questions to induce a sense of work strain and then spent ten minutes either on the digital game, fidget spinner or the Headspace mindfulness app.

In a survey before and after using the game, app or toy, they rated on a four-point scale how tired and energetic they felt.

This shows a woman on a cell phone

While previous research has found an association between playing games and improved recovery after work, the authors attempted to establish a causal connection. The image is in the public domain.

In the second part of the study, a different group of 20 participants were asked either to play the shape-fitting game or use a mindfulness app after arriving home from work for five days in a row. The game and app were installed on participants’ phones. After completing the activities, the participants were asked to fill in an online survey.

While no differences were found between the two groups in terms of how energised participants felt, the shape-fitting game appeared to offer increasing benefits throughout the week in terms of “recovery experience” – that is, to what degree participants felt relaxed, detached, in control and able to improve their skills.


Credit: University of Bath.

This was measured by asking participants to what extent they agreed with statements such as “During the activity, I forgot about work.”

Surprisingly, participants who followed a beginners’ course on the Headspace mindfulness app scored progressively less well on this measure throughout the five days.

The authors also noted that the level of enjoyment of the digital game was correlated with the amount of benefit it offered in terms of post-work recovery.

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
University of Bath
Media Contacts:
Tony Roddam – University of Bath
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Digital Games and Mindfulness Apps: Comparison of Effects on Post Work Recovery”. Emily Collins, BSc, MSc, PhD; Anna Cox, BSc, PhD; Caroline Wilcock, BA, MSc.
JMIR Mental Health. doi:10.2196/12853

Abstract

Digital Games and Mindfulness Apps: Comparison of Effects on Post Work Recovery

Background: Engagement in activities that promote the dissipation of work stress is essential for post work recovery and consequently for well-being. Previous research suggests that activities that are immersive, active, and engaging are especially effective at promoting recovery. Therefore, digital games may be able to promote recovery, but little is known about how they compare with other popular mobile activities, such as mindfulness apps that are specifically designed to support well-being.

Objective: The aim of this study was to investigate and compare the effectiveness of a digital game and mindfulness app in promoting post work recovery, first in a laboratory setting and then in a field study.

Methods: Study 1 was a laboratory experiment (n=45) in which participants’ need for recovery was induced by a work task, before undertaking 1 of 3 interventions: a digital game (Block! Hexa Puzzle), a mindfulness app (Headspace), or a nonmedia control with a fidget spinner (a physical toy). Recovery in the form of how energized participants felt (energetic arousal) was compared before and after the intervention and how recovered participants felt (recovery experience) was compared across the conditions. Study 2 was a field study with working professionals (n=20), for which participants either played the digital game or used the mindfulness app once they arrived home after work for a period of 5 working days. Measures of energetic arousal were taken before and after the intervention, and the recovery experience was measured after the intervention along with measures of enjoyment and job strain.

Results: A 3Ă—2 mixed analysis of variance identified that, in study 1, the digital game condition increased energetic arousal (indicative of improved recovery) whereas the other 2 conditions decreased energetic arousal (F2,42=3.76; P=.03). However, there were no differences between the conditions in recovery experience (F2,42=.01; P=.99). In study 2, multilevel model comparisons identified that neither the intervention nor day of the week had a significant main effect on how energized participants felt. However, for those in the digital game condition, daily recovery experience increased during the course of the study, whereas for those in the mindfulness condition, it decreased (F1,18=9.97; P=.01). Follow-up interviews with participants identified 3 core themes: detachment and restoration, fluctuations and differences, and routine and scheduling.

Conclusions: This study suggests that digital games may be effective in promoting post work recovery in laboratory contexts (study 1) and in the real world, although the effect in this case may be cumulative rather than instant (study 2).

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