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September 15, 2012

Is Playing Games a Waste of Life?

by Marina

Many people think that playing games is a waste of life. Imagine getting to the end of your life and regretting all that time you spent playing games! When you are on your death bed, you’d probably never say “I wish I’d spent more time playing Angry Birds”.

That’s what Game Designer Jane McGonigal (@avantgame) heard over and over again from complete strangers.

I wish I spent more time playing games
Apparently, young people now spend about 10,000 hours playing games by the age 21. So when we are on our death bed, will we regret all that time playing games? Jane took this problem seriously and decided to find out if there is any truth to that. 

I saw her presentation at the UX Week 2012 Conference in San Francisco. She shared some research done by the Hospice Workers, people that take care of us when we are literally on our death bed, on what people regret the most at the end of their lives.

Top 5 Regrets of the Dying

  1. I wish I hadn’t Worked so Hard
  2. I wish I Stayed in Touch with my Friends
  3. I wish I had let myself be Happier
  4. I wish I’d had the Courage to Express my True Self
  5. I wish I’d lived a Life true to my Dreams, instead of what others expected of me

Nobody actually said that at the end of their life they wished they’d spent more time playing games. However, Jane said, when she hears those top 5 regrets of the dying she also hears 5 deep human cravings that games help us to fulfill.

“I wish I hadn’t Worked so Hard” means to most people “I wish I’d spent more time with my family and my kids when they were growing up”.

Playing video games has actually tremendous family benefits. Research from School of Family Life shows that parents that spent more time playing games with their kids have stronger relationships with them, and the kids are more likely to go to their parents to solve their real world problems.

I wish I hadnt worked so hard

“I wish I Stayed in Touch with my Friends”
Games are actually incredibly effective relationships management tools, helping people to stay in touch with their real life friends on a daily bases.

“I wish I had let myself be Happier”
Clinical trials that have been conducted by the East Carolina University in the past 2 years showing that Casual video games demonstrate ability to reduce depression & anxiety and outperform pharmaceuticals in treating clinical anxiety & depression.

Be Happy!

“I wish I’d had the Courage to Express my True Self”
A 5-year research from the Stanford University documented that playing games with Idealized Avatar (idealized version of who we could be) actually changes how we act in real life – it makes us more confident, more ambitious and more committed to the goals we set in real life.

I wish I expressed my true self.
Jane also talked about her difficult experience of being in bed for 3 months after getting a severe concussion. Things didn’t heal properly after her accident 3 years ago, so her doctor said to her that in order to get better, she needs to rest the brain and to avoid everything that triggered the symptoms and pain. For her that meant – No Reading, No Writing, No Emails, No Running, No Alcohol, No Caffeine and No Video Games. After 30 days of this she didn’t see a reason to live. So she said to herself – “I am going to kill myself or I am going to turn this into a game.” And she did. She developed a game called “Super Better”, that helps people to build their personal resilience against health ailments.

Why a Game? Because the physiology of games research shows that when we play a game we tackle our problems with more creativity, more optimism, more determination and we are better at reaching out to other people for help.

Post-Traumatic Growth

Jane also talked about the Post-Traumatic Growth phenomenon. There is a research that suggests that some people actually get stronger and happier after a traumatic event.

“A traumatic event doesn’t doom us to suffer indefinitely. Instead, we can use it as a springboard to unleash our best qualities and lead happier lives.” ~ Jane McGonigal

Here are 5 things that people say after they experience a Post-Traumatic Growth:

  1. My Priorities have Changed – I’m not afraid to do what makes me happy
  2. I Feel Closer to my Friends and Family
  3. I Understand Myself Better, I know who I really am now
  4. I have a New Sense of Meaning and Purpose
  5. I’m better able to Focus on my Goals and my Dreams

If these sounds familiar, it’s because the top 5 traits of Post-Traumatic Growth are essentially the exact opposite of Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. It looks like somehow undergoing a traumatic event unleashes our ability to live the life with fewer regrets.

So how does that work? How do we get form trauma to growth and better yet, can we get benefits of Post-Traumatic Growth without actually going through a trauma? Apparently, Yes!

There are 4 different strengths or types of resilience that could increase your odds of experiencing Post-Traumatic Growth.

  1. Physical Resilience
  2. Mental Resilience
  3. Emotional Resilience
  4. Social Resilience

To increase Physical Resilience – do not sit still for more than an hour at a time.

Mental Resilience is your ability to focus on your goals. Will power works like a muscle. It gets stronger the more you exercise it. So tackling even small challenge, without giving up, will boost your will power.

Emotional Resilience is your ability to provoke positive emotions, like curiosity or love. To increase your Emotional Resilience – look up outside the window or imagine your favorite animal.

It turns out if you can increase your emotional ratio of positive to negative emotions 3:1, it will dramatically increase your ability to achieve your goals, as you will be more optimistic and will have more energy. People will also want to help you more because of that positive energy and optimism.

You have to get at least 3:1 ratio in order to unlock this ability. However, there is a cap. If you go higher than 12:1 it all collapses on itself and reverses, as other people start hating you –  nobody likes someone that happy all the time!

Social Resilience – your ability to draw strength from your friends, your family, your neighbors and your community.
It turns out if you shake someone’s hand for 6 seconds, it will boost the level of oxytocin, trust hormone, in your blood stream. You will then  become more inclined to help someone for the next 24hrs.

People who regularly boost their 4 types resilience, live 10 years longer than everyone else.

Lasting Impact of Playing a Game

Jane also talked about the lasting impact of playing a game.

Those who have cancer have to take their chemotherapy pills for 2-3 years, and its really hard to make kids to take pills regularly for that long.  80% of cases of cancers that returned were in kids that missed the dosage. However, those kids that played Re-Mission, a video game for teens with cancer, for as little as 2 hrs had a lot more consistent chemotherapy adherence for the next 6 months, compared to those who didn’t play the game at all.  And they didn’t see much difference between people who completed all levels in the game and those that just spent 2 hrs playing this game.


What’s also interesting that these kids that played the game felt that they had more control and more power to beat the cancer.

Creators of the Re-Mission actually teamed up with the Researchers from Stanford University to use fMRI so they could see what’s actually happening with the kids’ brain when they are playing re-Mission. What they saw is that the brains of the kids that were playing the game were lit up a lot more compared to those who were passively observing the game, but not playing it. So its the actual interaction with the game that led to those regions of the brain to be lit up like that.

brain activity

Those brain regions Caudate & Thalamus are called Reward Centers. They are responsible for addiction, like addiction to cocaine or gambling. What we know about these reward centers is that when they are lit up, we are more likely to stay engaged and not to give up. We also hang on to our goals longer! Which is not a good thing when we are losing money gabbling, but a good thing when we are fighting cancer.

brain activity

Another brain region that was led up is Hippocampus, which is associated with memories and long-term learning. This means that people who were playing games were committing to their long-term memory their ability to stay engaged with something and not to give up, even if its difficult. They were creating long-lasting habits! That’s why playing a game for just 2 hrs altered people’s behavior for 6 months.

“Researches concluded that a carefully designed video game can have a positive impact on health behavior in young people with chronic illness and that video-game–based interventions may constitute a component of a broader integrative approach to healthcare that synergistically combines rationally targeted biological and behavioral interventions to aid patients in the prevention, detection, treatment, and recovery from disease.” ~ Wikipedia

To me this means that its possible to control what we get addicted to and what habits we create by playing certain games, or I suppose by doing any other activities, that activate those brain regions. Now I just need to figure out which games will get me addicted to exercise, eating breakfast and doing taxes. Lol

Another interesting thing about this study is the exact moment when peoples’ brains lit up. It wasn’t at the moment when they succeeded in the game. It lit up in the split second between people taking an action and waiting to see the impact of their action. So it’s not the success, not getting what you want, but the moment of hope, the moment of anticipation of seeing your own power that made an impact on people. It’s not the success, but the act of pursuit that makes us happy! Even when we are failing, we are still getting rewarded.

I really enjoyed Jane’s fascinating talk. You can see her similar presentation “The game that can give you 10 extra years of life” on I actually bought her book “Reality is Broken” before I knew I’d see her at the Conference. Definitely going to read it now!

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