Digital games may beat mindfulness apps at relieving stress

In a study by University College London and the University of Bath, participants were given a 15-minute maths test and then asked to either play a shape-fitting game or use a mindfulness app.

“People who play such games after a stressful day at work should know they are likely to be gaining a real benefit”

Anna Cox

Meanwhile, those in a control group were given a fidget-spinner toy, according to the study paper published in the journal JMIR Mental Health.

Participants who played the shape-fitting game – called Block! Hexa Puzzle – reported feeling more energised and less tired afterwards.

In contrast, those in the mindfulness and fidget-spinner groups reported the opposite, with their level of “energetic arousal” appearing to decline.

In addition, workers who played a shape-fitting game after arriving home for five days reported feeling more relaxed by the end of the week than others who used a mindfulness app.

The authors noted that digital games appeared to fulfil four criteria necessary for post-work recovery.

These were to be relaxing, provide opportunities for mastering a new skill, be highly immersive and distracting, and allow people to feel in control.

While previous research had found an association between playing games and improved recovery after work, the study 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 10 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.

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.

University of Bath

Emily Collins

Source: Tom Mason

Emily Collins

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 how energised participants felt, the shape-fitting game appeared to offer increasing benefits throughout the week in terms of “recovery experience” – the degree participants felt relaxed, detached, in control and able to improve skills.

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

Study co-author Professor Anna Cox, from the 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, from the University of Bath, said: “To protect our long-term health and wellbeing, 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,” she added.