Male presenting gamer wearing a headset and sitting at a PC.

By fxquadro

Gaming and Stress: What flow state does for you

We have all picked up a game when we need a distraction. Many of us have also raged at a particularly difficult section and put games down because of stress. Stress and gaming tend to go hand in hand one way or another. 

Many people look to video games every day to blow off steam after a hard day, tackle hard emotions, or distract themselves enough to process various pieces of their lives. This is one of the benefits of gaming overall. Video games are a place for us to play, a critical piece of life we lose track of as adults more often than not. 

Through gaming we can dance, think outside the box, work on creativity and problem solving, etc. On top of all of this, we have the opportunity through some games to create meaningful social relationships. Social relationships are really hard for some people face to face. Gaming provides a safe space for a lot of behaviors and interests that are typically deemed childish. Yet that is just the surface. There is more that gaming does that doesn’t meet the eye.


Monkey Mind


Oh, dopamine, the wonderful neurotransmitter which is linked to memory and motivation. There are many ways that we can get dopamine which vary from person to person. As it is released in response to pleasurable experiences. Video games are designed to fit as many boxes as possible to create pleasure for the user. The artificial environments and the simulated storylines are meant to make you excited and stimulate your engagement. Gaming and stress management are built into most games one way or another. There are a few principles used to do this such as gamification, rewards, achievements, and other designs meant to target our brain’s rewards center. 

Different video games provide different benefits. Social connection from MMOs, introspection from cozy games, excitement from many different types of games.  Video games directly translate into improved manual dexterity. They can increase grey matter in the brain (which is associated with muscle control, memory, and perception, among other functions). Through gamification we can be tricked into learning new topics and skills through video games, and the games can help develop social skills and persistence. 

The monkey mind is a Buddhist term for a mind that is restless and unsettled. That feeling when you don’t really know what you could do that is enjoyable. Video games can help with this by taking advantage of the reward center of our brains. This forces our thought processes into a cycle that rewards skill-building and adaptive responses. This triumph circuit is why we have to enjoy the learning process and why gamification works.

When we experience pleasure through the process, we are rewarded with dopamine, which creates memories and triggers serotonin. The dopamine is released when you get feedback from the game that what you did is correct. This can look like many things such as gaining an achievement, getting a star, or opening a treasure chest. Games are designed with levels that get increasingly more difficult, which continually activates dopamine release as the player completes more difficult tasks.


Gaming and Stress: Flow State


Everyone has experienced a flow state at some point, though you may not have had a name for it. A flow state is a condition of existence in which you are fully immersed in what you are doing. You are focused, it is intense, and there is clarity in the activity that you are not experiencing at all times. Normally this flow state occurs under the correct conditions for the individual and you are engaged in an activity that holds your curiosity, passion, and enjoyment. 

Gaming is just one of the thousands of activities that you can use to get into this state on purpose or by accident. The design of video games lends itself to the ideal conditions for a flow state. There are audio and visual stimulations and a way for you to anchor yourself into the story through the character. Games then reward you with extrinsic rewards and successes that give the player enjoyment and gratification. 

Getting “in the zone” is very common for gamers. The flow state responsible is wonderful for your whole body when it happens. It actively reduces stress and activates the relaxation response by slowing our brains down. Helping us remove ourselves from any stressors or anxieties we have been experiencing. That is why after a good “in the zone” session you feel refreshed and like you can tackle more of the problems you have in the rest of your life. The flow state is the human reward for seeking challenges that are intrinsically meaningful to us. 


Flow State Recipe


There is a careful balancing act going on behind the scenes that we may not even be aware of when we are designing games and stories, let alone when we are experiencing them. The flow state exists between boredom and anxiety. The obstacles are challenging enough that we want to tackle them, even when we fall off or fail, we maintain the motivation through dopamine to continue going, chasing, and fighting for the accomplishment. 

This means there is a tipping point. When everything gets too hard and you will lose that total clarity of focus you had. This is because the anxiety will become too much, but if the challenge remains on the same level you will get bored and lose interest in the task. 

Games give us the perfect recipe:

  • One part: clear and authentic goals.
  • One part: clear, point-blank feedback.
  • One part: “Goldilocks” challenge – not too hard or too easy. 

If you have used gaming to manage anxiety, stress, or other negative feelings you are certainly far from alone. This is what games are meant for. They have evolved over time to be the perfect catalyst for the human mind to spend time unwinding itself from the modern lifestyle. While also allowing for clarity in a rewarding task. Remember everything is best in moderation: you need sunlight as much as you need the mental clarity gaming might provide. But don’t feel bad if you lose time occasionally to your gaming flow state. 

When you are ready to invest in your video game flow state setup, Xidax will be here to help you out! Until then, game on!