To Game is to Be Human - Part 2: Eustress

Mario Kart is one of the most successful games of all times. The series has sold over 150 million copies worldwide to date. The newest version (8 Deluxe) is currently the best selling game on Nintendo Switch.

This incredibly popular family video game is also incredibly stressful. According to a study by BonusFinder in collaboration with sports scientists and pro-gamers,

while playing the go-kart-style racing game players' heart rates rose by an average of 21 beats per minute, soaring 32.81% above the group’s 64 BPM resting heart rate.

This is no coincidence: Mario Kart is popular precisely because it is stressful.

So, here’s a question for all the gamers (and their curious parents) out there:

Why are we drawn to an entertainment experience that is as stressful as a high stakes presentation or an intimidating exam?

The answer, in short, is that stress isn’t all bad. In fact, scientists have a word to describe the good kind of psychological stress: it’s eustress. What?, you might say. And that’s a perfectly reasonable reaction. Stress management is a multibillion dollar industry after all, ranging from meditation apps to pharmaceuticals. Clearly stress is something we spend a lot of time thinking about, and aim to avoid. However,

eustress, the “good” stress, is actually positively correlated with life satisfaction and well-being.

So what’s the difference between eustress and, well, stress-stress? From a physiological standpoint, positive and negative stress are one and the same - the difference lies on a psychological level. According to clinical psychiatrist Dr. Melanie Greenberg, how we respond to stressors (situations that elicit stress) depends on how well we are prepared and supported, and how meaningful we perceive the challenge to be. If you think back to the defining features of games, these are key in ensuring that the stress we often experience in games is perceived as positive.

  • Voluntary Participation: The fact that you chose to play the game (and endure the stress of it) is your choice. You are in control of the stress and that helps make it positive.

  • Clear Goals: In games, the goal is crystal clear and makes the stress feel like a means to an end. We also know all the possible outcomes of the game going in. The consequences of failure are clear and manageable (and rarely if ever extend beyond the game itself).

  • Immediate (Objective) Feedback: Any feedback you receive in the game is objective and immediate. Princess Peach doesn’t yell at you for going off track - but you’ll probably slow down and maybe get overtaken if you don’t return back soon.

Video games are stressful, in a good way. And work often is too - think about a time your team pulled together to meet a tight deadline or prepare for a high stakes meeting. That’s eustress. If we think about the workplace, obviously there are some differences. But with game psychology in mind, we can work towards eustress at work.

If video games weren’t good at this, we would never play them. So what does this mean for work? It means we should do our best to set things up to maximize the chance of work related stress being perceived as positive and productive. Let’s explore how to put the research into practice.

  • Voluntary Participation: Work is rarely completely voluntary. To achieve a feeling of control similar to games, try to think about your job in the context of your long term goals. The pursuit of those long term goals is something that is in your control. Remind yourself why you chose your particular profession or position, and make sure you maintain a healthy support network within your workplace and outside of it.

  • Clear Goals: Setting yourself objectives and measurable key results is key in getting the same sense of incremental achievement that is so ingrained in games. For employers, it is important to empower your employees by encouraging them to set their own goals and strategy rather than to have them assigned. For this to work, employees need to be fully bought into the company mission

  • Immediate (Objective) Feedback: Like in games, feedback in the workplace should be immediate, specific and objective. This is a cornerstone of Kim Scott’s Radical Candor framework for feedback. Scott suggests giving feedback by stating your observation objectively and without judgement. Humans are naturally biased towards noticing and giving feedback on bad performance more than good performance. Therefore it’s important to give regular immediate positive feedback as well.

In general, we need to invest in reframing the way we think about stress in the workplace.

Video games celebrate wins with equal fervor no matter how many times e.g. you’ve already discovered a fossil in Animal Crossing.

Irrespective of whether you experience positive or negative stress, it depletes energy - so it’s important to make time for your body to recover.

Instead of trying to suppress and avoid stress - which can be an uphill battle at best - maybe we should expend some of that energy learning to accept a perfectly natural emotional response and reap its benefits. So, next time you pick up your phone or the game controller, explore whether you are seeking out the good stress.

Stay tuned for the next part of this series which will cover lessons that video games can teach us about feedback.

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