Last week I was contacted by a journalist at the Red Bulletin Magazine who was “looking for an expert in gaming psychology to talk to for a piece on the mental benefits of endless running games, i.e. ‘the gameplay building strong reward learning in players’. It should be a fun and practical guide…Just let me know if you’d be interested.” I was interested. I had been teaching in the morning so I didn’t get the email until a couple of hours after it had been sent. I scribbled down a few notes, got back in touch, but by the time I did, the journalist had already interviewed someone else for the feature. Since I’d already made a few bullet points, I thought I would use them for the basis of a blog. (I really don’t like things going to waste).
Although much of my research examines problematic gaming, I am not anti-gaming (and never have been), and I have published many papers on the benefits of gaming including therapeutic benefits, educational benefits, and psychological (cognitive) benefits (see ‘Further reading’ below). Some of you reading this may not know what endless running games are, so here is the Wikipedia definition from its entry on platform games:
“‘Endless running’ or ‘infinite running’ games are platform games in which the player character is continuously moving forward through a usually procedurally generated, theoretically endless game world. Game controls are limited to making the character jump, attack, or perform special actions. The object of these games is to get as far as possible before the character dies. Endless running games have found particular success on mobile platforms. They are well-suited to the small set of controls these games require, often limited to a single screen tap for jumping. Games with similar mechanics with automatic forward movement, but where levels have been pre-designed, or procedurally generated to have a set finish line, are often called “auto-runners” to distinguish them from endless runners”.
Endless running games are incredibly popular and played by millions of individuals around the world (including myself on occasions). One of the best things about endless running games is that because they can be played on smartphones and other small hand-held devices they can be played anywhere at any time. Like any good game, the rules are easy to understand, the gameplay is deceptively simple, but in the end, it takes skill to succeed. The simplicity of endless running games is one of the key reasons for their global success in terms player numbers. For successful games, the mechanics should be challenging but not impossible. Such games can lead to what has been described as a state of ‘flow’ (coined by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi in his seminal books Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience  and Flow: The Psychology of Happiness ).
With the flow experience, a game player derives intense enjoyment by being immersed in the gaming experience, the challenges of the game are matched by the player’s skills, and the player’s sense of time is distorted so that time passes without it being noticed. For some video game players, this may then mean repeatedly seeking out similar experiences on a regular basis to the extent that they can escape from their concerns in the ‘real world’ by being continually engrossed in a flow-inducing world. However, something like flow – viewed largely as a positive psychological phenomenon – may be less positive in the long-term for some video game players if they are craving the same kind of emotional ‘high’ that they obtained the last time that they experienced flow when playing a video game.
Flow has been proposed (by Jackson and Eklund, 2006) as comprising nine elements that include: (i) striking a balance between the challenges of an activity and one’s abilities; (ii) a merging of performance of actions with one’s self-awareness; (iii) possessing clear goals; (iv) gaining unambiguous feedback on performance; (v) having full concentration on the task in hand; (vi) experiencing a sense of being in control; (vii) losing any form of self-consciousness; (viii) having a sense of time distorted so that time seems to speed up or slow down; and (ix) the undergoing of an auto-telic experience (e.g., the goals are generated by the person and not for some anticipated future benefit). Endless running games are one of many types of videogame that can result in ‘flow’ experiences (which for the vast majority of gamers is going to result in something more positive (psychologically) than negative.
There are many studies showing that playing video games can improve reaction times and hand-eye co-ordination. For example, research has shown that spatial visualisation ability, such as mentally rotating and manipulating two- and three-dimensional objects, improves with videogame playing. Again, endless running videogames rely very heavily on hand-eye co-ordination and fast reaction to on-screen events. In this specific area, I see endless running games as having nothing but positive benefits in terms of improving hand-eye co-ordination skills, reflexes, and attention spans.
Although I’m not a neuroscientist or a neuropsychologist, I know that on a neurobiological level, when we engage in pleasurable activity, our bodies produce its own opiate-like neurochemicals in the form of endorphins and dopamine. The novelty aspects of endless running games will for many players result in the production of neurochemical pleasure which is rewarding and reinforcing for the gamer.
I also believe that endless running games have an appeal that crosses many demographic boundaries, such as age, gender, ethnicity, or educational attainment. They can be used to help set goals and rehearse working towards them, provide feedback, reinforcement, self-esteem, and maintain a record of behavioural change in the form of personal scores. Beating one’s own personal high scores or having higher scores than our friends and fellow gamers can also be psychologically rewarding.
Because video games can be so engaging, they can also be used therapeutically. For instance, research has consistently shown that videogames are excellent cognitive distractors and can help reduce pain. Because I have a number of chronic and degenerative health conditions, I play a number of cognitively-engrossing casual games because when my mind is 100% engaged in an activity I don’t feel any pain whatsoever. Again, endless running games tick this particular box for me (and others). Also, on a personal level, I am time-poor because I work so hard in my job. Endless running games are ideal for individuals like myself who simply don’t have the time to engage in playing massively multiplayer online games that can take up hours every day but will quite happily keep myself amused and pain-free on my commute into work on the bus.
As I have pointed out in so many of my research papers and populist writings over the years, is that the negative consequences of playing almost always involve a minority of individuals that are excessive video game players. There is little evidence of serious acute adverse effects on health from moderate play, endless running games included.
Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row
Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1992). Flow: The psychology of happiness. London: Random House.
Griffiths, M.D. (2002). The educational benefits of videogames Education and Health, 20, 47-51.
Griffiths, M.D. (2003). The therapeutic use of videogames in childhood and adolescence. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 547-554.
Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Can videogames be good for your health? Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 339-344.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.
Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.
Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Adolescent video game playing: Issues for the classroom. Education Today: Quarterly Journal of the College of Teachers, 60(4), 31-34.
Griffiths, M.D. (2019). The therapeutic and health benefits of playing videogames. In: Attrill-Smith, A., Fullwood, C. Keep, M. & Kuss, D.J. (Eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Cyberpsychology. (pp. 485-505). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2017). Videogames as therapy: An updated selective review of the medical and psychological literature. International Journal of Privacy and Health Information Management, 5(2), 71-96.
Jackson, S.A. & Eklund, R.C. (2006). The flow scale manual. Morgan Town, WV: Fitness Information Technology.
Nuyens, F., Kuss, D.J., Lopez-Fernandez, O., & Griffiths, M.D. (2019). The experimental analysis of non-problematic video gaming and cognitive skills: A systematic review. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 17, 389-414.