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Brain training: Could gaming become the new mindfulness?

Samuel fishwick

There’s an element of smug self-satisfaction as I arrange the cascade of technicolour Tetris blocks stacking up on my iPhone screen into towers, zapping them joyfully into oblivion like a joystick-giddy Marie Kondo.

But then I misplace an L shape, the blocks become unsortable, like mounting utility bills, and I’m seized by an urge to hurl my smartphone at a passing editor.

Yet video games — the bête noir of so many parents who blame them for their overwired, sleepless sprogs — are repositioning themselves as part of the solution, rather than the problem. Notably Tetris, which is heralded as a helpful tool to alleviate stress in new book Stress-Proof: The Ultimate Guide to Living a Stress-Free Life by neuroscientist Dr Mithu Storoni. It asserts that the 34-year-old arcade game can help limit the brain’s emotional reaction following an intensely stressful situation.

It’s not just Tetris. “Brain-training” app Peak, which tests users with memory, language and mental agility puzzles, has been cited by researchers at Queens College, City University of New York — which linked the game to alleviating symptoms of depression — and Cambridge University, where it’s been shown to boost concentration.

Even games like Zelda, Breath of the Wild, Stardew Valley, and the cult Red Dead Redemption 2 have been, rather astonishingly, hailed by reviewers as “mindful”.

Wandering happily on a pixelated horse through an enchantingly realised 19th-century American West in Red Dead Redemption 2, I can almost see why. Geese honk by a whispering creek, a crow caws, a dragonfly buzzes and — despite the imminent threat of a cowboy gunfight — this feels like a safe space.

“For a long time games have focused on things like number of lives, time limits and mechanical dexterity to provide an experience to players, and more recently we’ve added advertising and in-app purchases”, says Dan Gray, head of London studio ustwo games.

“What we’re seeing is a maturing of the industry, a time where we consider games to be more than just a distraction while we wait at a bus stop. With anxiety and depression on the rise for young people, I think there’s a real appetite for experiences that give you respite from the endless swiping of Instagram.”

Accordingly, ustwo designed Monument Valley, in which players guide a character through calming puzzles. “We’ve seen the game used by parents to calm children down,” says Gray.

Monument Valley 2 is created by London-based studio ustwo (ustwo)

PAUSE is an iOS game developed by ustwo in partnership with Danish mental health company PauseAble. Driven by research into how tai chi lowers the presence of stress-related chemicals in the brain, it combines mindfulness with haptic feedback.

Moving your finger slowly across the screen, holding it down on a moving, coloured blob, the game triggers the body’s “rest and digest” response using a mimesis of slow tai chi movements, quickly helping you regain focus and release stress.

Dr Storoni contends that immersion in a short game of Tetris walls off your brain from reliving a stressful encounter. “Your mind replays the scene after it is over,” says the scientist, who has conducted research at Cambridge and Harvard Medical School. “Every replay prolongs your emotional reaction — this perpetuates your stress reaction.” Play something else and it won’t play on your mind is the logic.

Dr Liron Jacobson, a neuroscientist whose work supports brain-training app Peak, agrees that when games are designed properly they provide a healthy workout for the brain, testing its neuroplasticity (its ability to reorganise itself by forming new neuron connections), taxing it like a muscle. Activities like puzzles help “stimulate and challenge our brain” resulting in a “strengthening of connections between the neurons” and it “can even cause new neurons to emerge”, Jacobson says.

Of course, you can overdo it. Spend eight hours on Candy Crush and find yourself suffering through REM sleep dominated by dopamine-dosing colour explosions.

But the games industry is changing. Playtime’s not over, it’s just getting serious about the little matter of grey matter, and keeping it in shape.