Andrew Miller, a guy I know, ((Well, not really, but roll with it.)) spends his days in an office cubicle, working as a Procurement Officer for a large telecommunications company. Every day he spends his limited patience and good will towards humanity on arguments with various middle managers about why they can’t go out and buy this or hire a contractor to do that without following the company’s procurement policies. He also audits purchasing invoices, haggles with suppliers to get good prices, and tries to keep various budgets from into devolving into chaos. He’s good at his job, but by the end of the week he’s totally beat and ready to get away from work for a while. And so every weekend he goes on raids, rushes capture points, slays ogres, and battles to keep his place on the StarCraft II ladders.
And you know what? Come Monday morning he’s a better employee because he played video games. Science proves this beyond any argument. Well …science suggests it. I mean, a few psychologists have data saying it’s probably true. And they’re German psychologists, so it gets a little more awesome if you imagine them saying it with an accent.
To whit, earlier this year Carmen Binnewies, Sabine Sonnentag, and Eva Mojza published a study ((Binnewies, C., Sonnentag, S. & Mojza, E. (2010). Recovery during the weekend and fluctuations in weekly job performance: A week-level study examining intra-individual relationships. Journal of Organizational and Occupational Psychology, 83(2), 419-441.)) where they looked at what effect using the weekend to recover from work had on one’s job performance. The theory is that people have “resources” that they drawn on to do their job. These could be physical strength, attention, patience, emotional control, or whatever. Eventually those resources become sapped to the point where the person needs to recover them. Recovery happens when those resources are not being tapped, which most frequently happens during nights and weekends. ((And yes, this is the point in the article by which you should have Loverboy’s “Workin’ for the Weekend” running through your head, NON STOP.)) But it just doesn’t happen magically; you have to engage in what’s known as “recovery experiences.”
There are supposedly three different kinds of experiences that lead to recovery: psychological detachment, relaxation, and mastery experiences. The first of these, psychological detachment, can be as simple as not gong in to work –it relies on the employee to do and think about something else for a change. Relaxation activities are those that most of us probably think of in response to the phrase “taking it easy.” These kinds of past times can be anything that the person enjoys and which is physically relaxing –reading, lounging, doing yard work, even exercising. Finally, mastery experiences are those that build new skills and a sense of accomplishment and maybe even add new skills to our repertoire.
Using a series of surveys that asked participants about what they did on the weekends while also gathering information about job performance and how grueling they found their work, the researchers found that yes, the types of recovery experiences described above led to feeling recovered on Mondays. And that state of being recovered in turn led not only to better job performance, but also feeling that doing well at work actually required less effort.
While reading this article, especially the parts about the recovery activities of psychological detachment, relaxation, and mastery experiences, I kept thinking, “Dude, video games. Playing video games could lead to any and all of those recovery experiences.” We play games to temporarily detach escape from reality, including our jobs or school. While some games leave us whit knuckled, others can be very relaxing. And at their heart, games are about mastery, developing new skills, or acquiring new knowledge.
So I did some more digging, and it turns out that I wasn’t the only one who had had those thoughts. Just last year, Leonard Reinecke had published a different study entitled “Games and Recovery: The Use of Video and Computer Games to Recuperate from Stress and Strain.” ((Reinecke, L. (2009). Games and Recovery: The Use of Video and Computer Games to Recuperate from Stress and Strain. Journal of Media Psychology, 21(3), 126-142.)) Building on the same body of research as the above authors, Reinecke also hypothesized that psychological detachment, relaxation, and mastery experiences could lead to recovery after a daily hassles and a stressful week at work, but he was specifically interested in these activities viz a viz video games.
And indeed, after surveying readers of a German language gaming website, he found that many of them routinely turned to games in response to stress, and that playing games was often experienced as acts of psychological detachment, relaxation, and skill mastery. This was, of course, particularly true for people who regularly turned to games in response to frustration or mental exhaustion. Interestingly, the more stressed by work people reported being, the less they reported playing video games –probably because their crappy jobs didn’t give them much time to play.
With all the typical media attention on the negative consequences of playing games –violence, warped racial and gender views, addiction, and time wasting– it’s nice to see some studies like the above suggesting the ways that video games can be good for your mental health. None of these researchers is saying that playing games is necessarily a better or worse recovery experience than, say, going to the gym or meeting up with some friends for drinks, but hopefully that research will follow. And besides, people differ; what does nothing to relax one person could really help our friend Andrew the Procurement Officer get ready for tackling his workload come Monday morning.