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RE: Playing games hazardous to your health?

RE: Your health By Wren Weburg
7/18/99

After posting the article "Playing SimCity 3000 hazardous to your health?", which pondered the negative affects of playing engrossing games like SimCity 3000 or Quake for extended amounts of time, I've received a substantial number of responses from readers. The response types ranged from the skeptical to the worried to the humorous, and I must say I enjoyed reading every last one. Some people asked questions, some told stories, and others gave suggestions on how to reduce the negative affects.

Negative affects? What negative affects? First of all, an overwhelming number of responses cited numerous "side effects" of playing games, many of which could certainly be classified as negative, or in the very least, undesirable.

Getting physical

Turns out, getting physical could be the very solution... or perhaps it's the root of the problem. More on the solution part later. First, let's talk about the negative physical affects that readers reported. There was a handful of cases that reported symptoms similar to carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition Controllerin which parts of the wrist swell, putting pressure on a major nerve that can result in tingling or numbness of the hand. Gameplaying's role here is fairly obvious: repeated use of the mouse, a joystick, or the keyboard. In addition, resting on the hand at the computer desk or leaving the hand in an awkward position for an extended period of time can cause problems. In most cases, however, it's the repetitive action that causes harm. Moving the mouse back and forth, pressing the same button, or just plain rigorous activity of the hands and arms can really cause excess wear and tear. We all know that games like Quake can induce fatigue of the hands and limbs, and one person reported that a nerve in their hand became damaged simply by resting their head on their hand at the computer table.

The eyes have it

Then of course, there's eyestrain, which was mentioned over and over again. Staring at a monitor isn't really all that healthy in heavy doses; our eyes have to move back and forth, staring at a fairly bright light source which isn't exactly natural. When this is done for hours on end, it's easy to see how easily the eyes can become sore and irritated. Not to mention that as people continue to stare at the screen, they blink less often, resulting in dry eyes. One player complained of a so-called "ESCA" symptom, or "Eye Strain and Cranial Atrophy". Yikes!

And as if we didn't already know, there is loss of sleep. Most of us have, on more than one occasion, stayed up until 3:00 AM playing a computer game. If you haven't, then you're probably not normal. Staying up late obviously has its side-effects. The body is pushed beyond its daily capacity resulting in tiredness the next day. Since a lot of gamers are young, they lose a lot of the sleep they need to grow into big, strong adult game players. Well, that's a little extreme, but there's no denying the negative results of being inattentive in school the next day, or missing the entire day of school, as one person reported. In fact, there was one story of a guy who skipped school for an entire week after receiving Fallout II for his birthday. Tsk, tsk!

Clearly, just like any other activity, game playing can impose substantial demands on the body, at least over an extended period of time.

Mind games

More popular than the physical aspects of game playing were stories of the psychological effects of games. Since this is a SimCity 3000 site, most of the stories were based on SimCity 3000, or some other strategy game. But there were many responses talking about 3D games like Unreal, Quake, and others.

To add to the topic of sleep, I found that once a lot of readers reported going to bed, they couldn't actually get themselves to doze off. Why? Because they were still playing the game--in their heads. Many a mayor explained how they thought about what they were going to do with their city the next day. Would they enact the pollution control ordinance? How would they deal with their budget crisis? Which type of zone were they going to place next? And the nightmares! Nothing like a zombie in your dreams to make you a zombie the next day.

The problem didn't stop after falling asleep. Imagine becoming so involved with a game that it is constantly on your mind. A part of you, in fact. That's what happened with one player, who became so engrossed with building their city--conceptualizing and visualizing it at all hours--that she got fed up and left the game for a week.

Can't get that song outta my head!

It was somewhat shocking to hear how many complained of gaming music and sound effects sticking in their heads, playing over and over as they feel asleep or carried out their day. Now that I think back, though, I probably have more computer game songs memorized than I do songs I hear on the radio.

Music notesPerhaps it's the repetitive nature of computer game audio. Unlike the radio or our CD collections, computer game music tends to be somewhat limited in the musical selections. Some games play the same song over and over for each level of gameplay, and some of those levels can last a long, long time. For games like SimCity 3000, the music is varied and there are many scores, but if you play the game long enough, you are likely to hear the same song 10 times or more in the same day. One player referred to this as "ROR", or the "Record on Repeat" phenomena associated with SimCity 3000's music.

And then there are the sound effects. Games like Quake feature lots of repetition--guns, grunts, gory explosions, etc. As for SimCity, there are cars honking, demolition sounds, and other such sounds. These sounds tend to linger long after the amplifier is turned off, having been pounded into the ear. And let's not forget about decibels. If you're a typical gamer, chances are you crank up the sound for a more submersive experience. Too loud, and you risk damaging your hearing.

What can you do?

There was definitely no shortage of suggestions from readers, and in this last section, I'll summarize them in hope they might help you. By no means have I covered every effect of gaming, and to that same extent, I can't offer every solution. But by and large, following the advice here could help minimize those nasty side-effects:

  • Take breaks. This was perhaps the number one suggestion, and it makes a lot of sense. If you're having problems following a gaming session, chances are you've had too much. During gameplay, take short, 5-minutes breaks every hour or so, or as often as needed. Get up and stretch, make yourself a sandwich, go outside, etc. Stretching the hands, arms, and legs before and during gameplay can reduce stress to these areas. Plus, just give them a good rest every now and then.

    Still others advocated long-term breaks as well. Some players found that restricting their gaming sessions to a scheduled time interval, say from 2:00 PM to 7:00 PM, worked wonders for them. Yet others found they needed more. Taking an entire day off--or even a week--was often needed. Upon coming back to the game, players found they had more energy and generally felt better than if they were playing the game non-stop. As one player put it, "If I'm no longer enjoying the game, then I have defeated the purpose." Whether you're just plain tired of the game, or your body is tired, it's important to get away. You may find that you'll actually enjoy the game more if you play it less (the "less is more" argument!).

  • Be nice to your eyes. You only have one set of eyes, so take care of them. In addition to taking breaks, don't forget to blink! I know that sounds silly, but it's easy to stare at a computer screen, eyes wide open, and rarely blink. This leads to dry, irritated eyes.

    One player wanted to caution others about staring too close to the screen, after having caused harm to his own eyes. According to him, eye lenses can loose their elasticity after awhile, and watching a screen can stretch the lenses and they can lose their ability to completely contract. So sit back away from the screen. Or, move the monitor back. And if your eyes start getting sore, get away from the computer for awhile.

  • Get some exercise. Go out and play some basketball, football, rollerblade, or engage in some other activity. Sitting in front of a computer all day is like sitting in front of anything else. A little physical activity every now and then is important to keep the heart healthy and the muscles conditioned. Moving a joystick or a mouse back and forth is akin to lifting the remote. It just isn't enough, despite what some couch potatoes may tell you. And along with physical activity, a good diet helps. Junk food is commonly found right next to gaming machines--something that would make your mother cringe.

Now, I'm no doctor, nor do I play one on Web TV. But the bottom line seems to center on control. Too much of anything probably isn't good, and many of you certainly made clear that six hours in front of a computer is quite ridiculous. Moderation is the key. With a little discipline, you can maximize your gaming sessions and keep your body happy at the same time.

I would like to thank everyone who contributed to this article. As I said before, I had a lot of fun reading your responses, and I'm confident that your contributions can help one another.

For more information

Following are some additional resources you might want to check out:

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