Note to Self

The Secret to Making Video Games Good for You

September 20, 201624 min
Video games are the new self-help, and Jane McGonigal is here to tell us why.
She's an all around gaming boss (see here and here) and she's the director of game research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California where she's spent years researching our brains during what she calls, "the state of play." After wading through tons of research, she found that gaming is a wonderland of possibilities to make us smarter, happier, and more creative people. 
So game play isn't just an escape? Nope, it doesn't have to be. Jane says that the key to finding positive emotions and empowerment is to ground your gaming in real life. So when you're trapped in Minecraft, don't give up and walk away, trudge on. Fight. Or use creative problem-solving to get to to the next level. Those skills or resources will spill out from the virtual world and into the real one. 
In fact, gaming can help cope with depression and combat anxiety, but it's all about the dosage (i.e. how much gaming you're doing). And we didn't want to leave you hanging when it comes to figuring out which games are best for what. Here are Jane's prescriptions:
If you're trying to lose weight: "When you feel a craving coming on, play a visual pattern-matching game on your phone -- like Tetris or Candy Crush Saga – for ten minutes. These games have been shown in scientific studies to reduce cravings, by monopolizing your visual imagination and blocking your brain's ability to picture the thing you crave. Research shows that players make healthier eating choices in the hour after they've played!"
If you need to reduce stress or combat anxiety: "Try the new game Reigns. It's a simple and easy-to-learn game in the style of games known to activate the same blood flow patterns in the brain as meditation, creating a blissful state of mind known as "flow." Research shows that twenty minutes of these flow-inducing games, three times a week, will help you focus your mind and calm yourself, and improve your mood for hours afterward. (Believe it or not, I’ve met many Buddhist monks who play Angry Birds!)"
If you could use a boost of extra energy and motivation: "Play a really tricky puzzle game, like Sudoku, Cut the Rope, or The Room. Research shows that trying to solve a difficult puzzle increases dopamine levels in your brain, which is the neurotransmitter that increases your work ethic and will power. It doesn't matter if you successfully complete the game or not – just trying will do the trick, and the harder the better. So if you have a difficult project to tackle, or a complex problem to solve, prime your brain for success with fifteen minutes of puzzling first."
Manoush is an old-school Tetris addict and she just downloaded it on her phone to play guilt-free. But what's your jam? Tell us what you like playing and why. As per the usual,  get in touch at, or the comments section below, or on Twitter or Facebook.  
UPDATE: You've been writing in to tell us about the games you use to de-stress or stretch your brain, and they sound so good we had to share.  Below, suggestions from Note to Self listeners: 
"If you're looking for a game to play before bed, Harvest Moon is my all time favorite. Nothing is as relaxing as simulated farming." - Maggie "I like playing a game called Wordament to help deal with stress or to calm my brain down at the end of the day. It forces my brain to focus on just one thing rather than having scattershot thoughts." - Chris "The Witness is the epitome of puzzle games. If you want a mind-tearing, beautiful, and unbelievably involved puzzle game, that is the game for you." - Justin "Words With Friends keeps me connected. Monument Valley just tickled me. Klondike Solitaire to empty my head." - Peg "Since I was 11 years old, The Sims has been one of the most effective stress-relieving aspects of my life. There’s something about the steady, creative process of building a house, achieving perceived long-term goals (Barista -> Manager in 1 hour, what?!) and social experimentation that completely relaxes me. Crazy to think after 15 years of turbulent high school emotions, unrewarding internships, stressful career deadlines, that this one game has evolved with me and, in my opinion, heightened by durability to the pressures of everyday life." - Angelique
"I remembered  while looking into Monument Valley in particular that the soundtracks are so also so helpful for studying. My favorites right now are MV's, Journey, and Firewatch!!" - Tracey
"I play It’s the only technology driven game I’ve ever played. I find it fun, interesting, challenging and then I have a kinship chart for my children when I’m finished." - Leslie
"My game is Spelltower. My daughter enjoys playing many games- Satellina, Monument Valley, Pictoword, Twist -- and I think most are useful in teaching problem-solving." - Leanna 
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