Peggle Your Way to Health!

One Seattle company tries to prove that playing its games improves your mental state.

You've seen them, probably played them too: So-called "casual games" are the digital age's answer to your grandmother's kitchen solitaire. They're nonviolent, and attractive to seniors, preschoolers, and everybody else with a little time to spare—or an urge to procrastinate. They're the antithesis of Grand Theft Auto. Easily learned and easily played, these games generally involve puzzles and problem-solving (i.e., arranging things in rows, making words, whatever) rather than guns, explosions, and elaborate storylines. But are these trivial time-wasters in fact the key to better mental health? Is sitting on your ass and staring at the screen on your phone the gateway to greater alertness and contentment? PopCap Games says yes. With a staff of 180, it's one of the heavy hitters in the $2.25 billion-a-year casual-games industry. PopCap's game Bejeweled has sold more than 10 million copies, according to the company, and is the third most popular game in existence, according to the Casual Games Association, trailing only blockbuster brain-busters Solitaire and Tetris. PopCap's products, which also include Zuma and Peggle, are now standard-issue on cell phones and starting to show up on the backs of airplane seats. But like a rock star who wants to be taken seriously, PopCap has sought to be more than popular; it also wants to be viewed as a valuable contributor to society. "We saw literally 80 to 90 percent of our customer responses saying, 'Thank you for making a game that leaves me feeling less stressed, that leads me feeling more mentally sharp,'" says Garth Chouteau, a PopCap spokesperson. "So we decided to invest in it to see if it was scientifically true." Over the past three years the company has spent more than $100,000 on research to prove that aligning shiny jewels and interacting with cartoon invertebrates provides real health benefits. The company regularly issues press releases trumpeting the results, and has won coverage in outlets such as CNN and the New York Times. One of the most recent studies, underwritten by PopCap to the tune of $30,000, was carried out by Dr. Carmen Russoniello, director of the Center for Psychophysiology and Biofeedback at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., who has also studied the physical effects of board games, card games, pool, and Ping-Pong. Russoniello asked test subjects to play three of PopCap's games while a control group surfed the Web for health articles. Most of the test subjects, Russoniello says, were students in the university's College of Health and Human Performance and probably used the time for homework. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the group doing homework did not come away feeling as groovy as the game players. Researchers monitored the participants' brain activity and heart rate. The researchers also used the Profile of Mood States, a psychological test which seeks to measure six different moods: tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue, and confusion. Subjects rate their current feelings, such as "worn out," "shaky," friendly," "relaxed," "peeved," and "ready to fight," on a scale of one to five. The conclusion: PopCap game players showed measurable improvement in stress relief and psychological tension compared to the control group. Russoniello says the subjects' level of confusion also dropped drastically, leading him to postulate that one day the games may cure senility. However, "much more needs to be done before video games can be prescribed to treat medical conditions," said Russoniello in the PopCap press release. In another study, Bellevue-based Information Solutions Group conducted an online survey of PopCap players, some of whom said they had children suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. "Causal Video Games Bring Relief and Enjoyment to Children With ADHD" read the headline on the press release, which included testimonials from "Joe P." of Athens, Ga., and "Joanna G." of Oakland, Calif., who claimed their kids came away from PopCap's games more calm and relaxed. "Any reasonable type of treatment that would enhance the ADHD child's attention span, focusing, concentration skills, and self-confidence would be a welcome asset to parents and teachers alike," said the press release, quoting Dr. Carl Arinoldo, a Stony Brook, N.Y.–based psychologist and author of Essentials of Smart Parenting: Learning the Fine Art of Managing Your Children. There are a few other studies underway, PopCap's Chouteau says—two in the United States and one in the United Kingdom. In addition, the Department of Defense and the National Institute of Mental Health have solicited PopCap's products for use in their own studies, though Chouteau doesn't know the content of those experiments. These studies don't impress David Goodman, director of the Adult Attention Deficit Disorder Center of Maryland and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "At the end of the day [casual games] have transient effects," he says. "It's like exercise in that your cognitive ability improves for about an hour or two but returns to normal soon after." After reviewing the East Carolina study, Goodman brushed it off. "Let me make it clear," he wrote to SW, "it's like shooting an arrow at a barn then drawing the target around it." "There are major faults in the study design and presentation of selective data so that someone untrained in scientific method (the general public) would think this is real science," Goodman said. For example, Goodman says, in the initial data presentation, subjects are not distinguished by age or gender. However, the final report lists characteristics of people "under 25," but doesn't say what percentage of the total participants were under 25. "This represents post hoc analysis which is looked upon with high suspicion in science," Goodman writes. "All in all, a remarkably clever marketing ploy, but not science, and it should be criticized as grossly misleading to the general public." Russoniello stands by his data—and his analysis. "[PopCap's] question to me—which I've been doing for 20 years—is if you can measure [the physical and mental changes associated with playing videogames], and indeed you can. What that means? I don't really know. But preliminarily, it looks like people are taking away an increase in mood and in some cases a decrease in stress." This, Russoniello says, led him to believe that "there is a wide range of therapeutic applications of casual games in mood-related disorders such as depression and in stress-related disorders including diabetes and cardiovascular disease." Currently, he's recruiting subjects to test some of these hypotheses.

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