The results of a study by the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at East Carolina University have been released, showing that casual videogames can have significant stress-relieving and other “mood-lifting” effects.

Underwritten by PopCap Games, which also provided copies of Bejeweled 2, Peggle and Bookworm Adventures for testing purposes, the study ran over six months, using state-of-the-art technology to measure heart-rate variability (HRV), electroencephalography (EEG) and pre- and post-activity mood states (POMS) in the test subjects. Several significant findings were made in relation to the therapeutic use of casual games in the treatment of serious mental and physical disorders.

“I’ve conducted many clinical studies in the area of recreational therapy in the past, but this was the first one seeking to determine the potential therapeutic value of videogames,” said Dr. Carmen Russoniello, director of the Psychophysiology Lab and Biofeedback Clinic at the College of Health and Human Performance at East Carolina University. “The results of this study are impressive and intriguing, given the extent of the effects of the games on subjects’ stress levels and overall mood. When coupled with the very high degree of confidence we have in those results based on the methodology and technologies used, I believe 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.”

Bejeweled was determined to be the most effective stress relieving game in the study, reducing physical stress in test subjects by 54 percent compared to the control group, while Peggle was the most effective in terms of “total mood disturbance,” measured across six categories, improving mood by 573 percent compared to the control group. “It’s not surprising that Peggle had the greatest effect on overall mood, given the game’s over-the-top celebration of players’ success each time they complete a level,” said Dr. Russoniello. “The other games also provide positive feedback to players, but not to the same extent or in the same ‘exhilarating’ fashion.”

All three games were found to have significant impacts across a number of tested factors, including a reduction in psychological tension, anger and mental fatigue, as well as depression and confusion, two areas that were of particular interest in the test. “All three games, but particularly Peggle, should be used in more focused trials with a group of clinically depressed subjects, to gauge the effects,” Russoniello said. “If these games can reduce depression this significantly among a population of people who are not diagnosed with depression, the potential for positively affected the mental state of someone who is in fact depressed is very significant.” Of the measured reduction in confusion, he added, “These findings are especially intriguing as they present the possibility that casual games may be useful in ameliorating conditions such as attention deficit disorder, memory loss and general confusion attributed to dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.”

As a result of the study’s findings, which ran from October 2007 to April 2008 and included 134 people, the Psychophysiology Lab at ECU is planning to start clinical trials in the fall to “determine the efficacy of these games and their prescriptive parameters.” Full results of the PopCap Casual Videogame Study are available at the East Carolina University website.

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