The Ryan Lambie column: casual games can save your life

Can insubstantial time-passers like Bejeweled really delay the Big Frag...?

Go on. Do you good...(Bejewelled 2)

I received an interesting email this week from US developer PopCap – the makers of the bestselling puzzler Bejeweled. In among the sales figures and company history I found some information about research into the psychological effects of their games. I found it so interesting that I asked permission to quote it here, which I will (a bit of it, at least):

‘East Carolina University reveals the results of a 6-month randomized, controlled study that confirms positive health benefits of so-called “casual” video games. The study was conducted between October 2007 and April 2008 and included a total of 134 subjects. The family-friendly puzzle / word games used in the study – Bejeweled 2 , Peggle and Bookworm Adventures – are made by PopCap Games, whose customer surveys last year indicated similar casual gaming benefits.’

The results appeared to show that PopCap’s games reduced levels of psychological tension, anger, depression, fatigue and confusion from anywhere between 40 and 400 per cent, while raising vigor by 210 per cent. According to the report, somebody called doctor Russoniello had this to say about the results:

‘If these games can reduce depression this significantly among a population of people who are not diagnosed with depression, the potential for positively affecting the mental state of someone who is in fact depressed is very significant.’

Ad – content continues below

In a form of entertainment usually associated with negative press about violence and antisocial behaviour, it’s highly unusual to read a piece of research that tells of gaming’s positive effects. If the study’s to be believed, playing Bejeweled for an hour could be better for stress and depression than taking Prozac.

So given that PopCap’s games are good for us, I began thinking about all the games that might just be the opposite, the ones that could conceivably give you a heart attack rather than prevent one.

Take a game like Army Moves from the mid-eighties. Back then, Spanish developer Dynamic gained a fearsome reputation for creating the hardest games you could find on 8-bit computers, and Army Moves was no exception. You were bombarded with terror from the moment play commenced; you had to guide your jeep over a bridge riddled with holes which had to be jumped while avoiding the enemy trucks hurtling in from the right and the helicopters raining down showers of death from above. Army Moves contained the kind of stultifying difficulty that makes grown men weep, and even the best players would see the bizarre game over screen with horrible regularity (‘The mission has failed. You have lost your effectives,’ it read, rather ominously).

Later, Capcom released Ghouls and Ghosts , another game that could play havoc with your blood pressure. The arcade original was hard enough with its randomly spawning undead and sadistically spaced-out check points, but the Super Nintendo version was even worse – thanks to its piffling little processor, the gameplay would slow down unexpectedly whenever more than a handful of sprites appeared on the screen, which made it yet more difficult to avoid those pesky zombies. My blood boils just thinking about it.

Any first-person shooter that requires the player to make precise jumps over tiny platforms is also likely to create serious bouts of depression. If you can remember the original Turok on the Nintendo 64, you’ll know exactly what I mean – the word ‘frustrating’ doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Most recently, Ninja Gaiden II ‘s eye-watering difficulty level (and rather jittery camera) has been giving me considerable psychological trauma, particularly when I come up against an area boss that can take away about three-quarters of my energy bar with one swipe of his talons/tail/golf club.

Ad – content continues below

So if all the frustrating games are the ones that could conceivably give us heart attacks, what can we do about it? The good news is, I think I’ve come up with the perfect solution: for every hour you play something as frustrating and difficult as Ninja Gaiden II , switch off and play Bejeweled for a few minutes. Even if it doesn’t actually calm you down, at least you’ll get really good at matching different coloured jewels…

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.