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Gaming can be a healthy pursuit as long as you don’t lose yourself in it, says Jane McGonigal, PhD, director of games research and development at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif.

Studies have shown that the same regions of the brain that appear to be understimulated when we experience depression are hyperstimulated when we play games. In other words, they can help relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety, providing calm, motivation, a sense of accomplishment, and even a feeling of optimism.

And yet they can become a time-suck — or even an addiction, according to some analyses. What determines the difference between gaming as a life enhancer and gaming as a life problem? McGonigal suggests that it depends on whether you see games as “being meaningfully related to reality.”

“Are you a different person when you play?” she asks. “Are you in a different reality?” If so, you’re using them as a crutch “and aren’t able to bridge the gap between a game world and your real-life challenges. So, the worse real life gets, the more you play games. And then the more you play games, the more you avoid your problems in this downward spiral.”

McGonigal offers these tips for staying out of the spiral:

  • Set a 10- or 20-minute limit with a timer. “A lot of video games have been shown to have very similar effects to meditation in terms of how the brain state is transformed,” she explains. “So, if you’re trying to calm your mind and body and return to the world with more mindfulness, 20 minutes of game play is recommended. If you’re trying not to overeat, smoke, or consume a drug, studies have found that 10 minutes of certain types of games are really effective for that.”
  • Emphasize the abstract qualities in the games. Don’t concentrate on how good you are at blowing up aliens or crushing candy, she suggests, but look at how well you’ve learned to focus for short periods of time.

People who feel they’re becoming addicted to games, she says, “should focus on the abstract quality of these games they really love, so they can find it in other things.” If the stimulation of intense concentration is the payoff for you, you could, for example, take up archery, rock climbing, or meditation.

And, as with any habit you struggle to control, if you find that you can’t stick with the parameters you set and are on the downward spiral, seek therapeutic help.

This originally appeared as “I enjoy playing video games, but sometimes I spend more time gaming than I want to. How can I play them more mindfully?” in the July/August 2019 print issue of Experience Life.

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