Think about the last time you played a game (for many of us, it was probably within the last 24 hours). Was it a fun, relaxing experience? Did it leave you feeling fulfilled and happy, or did you find yourself experiencing stress by the experience? Maybe you got tilted in a multiplayer match, or perhaps couldn’t figure out how to progress in a puzzle.

More people fall into the latter category than you might think. While games are supposed to be entertainment first and foremost, they can also be stressful and provoke negative responses in players, even those who are fans. When thinking about stressful moments in gaming, most people will probably think of multiplayer games first, as they tend to arouse the most public negative responses from pro gamers, streamers, and everyday players; however, single-player games can be equally frustrating and difficult to play. In the best of times, these stressful experiences can fuel a desire to improve or progress in a game, but they can also simply make us feel worse.

In honor of National Stress Awareness Month, we’re bringing you a two-part series on how to identify and manage stressors while gaming. In this first part, we’ll be taking a look at stressors in several different kinds of games. What do they look like? What do they feel like? How do people react to difficult or frustrating situations in gaming, and why do these reactions occur? This information will prepare us to better analyze these stressors in part 2, which will focus on strategies to cope with and defuse tense situations in games. In order to make gaming more enjoyable and less negative for everyone, it’s important that every player examines their individual stress reactions and builds strategies to work through them in a healthy way.

Stressors in Multiplayer Games

Perhaps because of their popularity in the esports scene and on streaming platforms like Twitch, multiplayer games contain the most well-known stressors in gaming. Completing any activity with a group or team of other people can lead to a host of stressful situations, and games are no exception. It could even be argued that people who play multiplayer games have it particularly hard – can you imagine playing any other sport with a team of random people that a matchmaker paired you with?

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The presence and actions of other players, particularly random players, in multiplayer games are some of the biggest stressors in gaming. Frustration can stem from the perception that a player is better than you, particularly if you believe they’re using wallhacks, aimbots, or other cheats to gain an unfair advantage. Other players can egg you on with rude or taunting messages in voice or text chat; it’s important to recognize when someone else is purposefully using inflammatory language to get a rise out of you. Even if the rude messages are aimed at someone else, the creation of a negative environment through taunting language – especially when this language contains sexist, racist, homophobic, or other hateful rhetoric – can make things worse for everyone. On the flip side, a lack of communication from teammates can be nearly as bad. If your teammates aren’t giving good callouts or are purposefully throwing the match by dying repeatedly, it’s easy to get angry at both them and the game’s matchmaking capabilities.

Speaking of matchmakers, multiplayer games that have ranked systems contain even more stressors than the average title. There’s been a lot of talk about whether “ELO hell“, or a sort of purgatory between high and low rankings where good players are unable to advance because of bad teammates, really exists. Regardless of whether it’s a real phenomenon, players who believe their skill level is higher or more advanced than the teammates they’ve been matched with are more likely to become frustrated (I don’t have any scientific evidence to back that up, but trust me – I’ve seen it happen). This is particularly likely when losing results in a loss of points or ranked standing. While these aspects of game design are included in order to give ranked modes more weight and risk/return, they can easily cause people to become disillusioned with other players and the game as a whole. Watching professional gamers and high-ranking Twitch streamers can give some insight into skill and play improvements, but even this can create feelings of discouragement, provoking thoughts like “I’ll never be as good as them” or “I wish my teammates were as good as theirs.”

Stressors in Single-Player Games

While multiplayer games get most of the spotlight when it comes to stressors in gaming, single-player games can be equally frustrating experiences. The rise in popularity of games like Dark Souls, which challenge the player to die many times in the hope of becoming incrementally better, have created a culture of “expected frustration” – you know these games are going to make you mad, but they’re so good that you want to play them anyway. While this can be an engaging and occasionally triumphant experience – that “One more try!” mentality is powerful – it can also be a stressful, even upsetting experience.

Like multiplayer games, some single-player games include leaderboards or ranking systems. In many cases, you’re not playing against other players directly in these modes; you’re more likely to be completing a single-player course or objective in a certain amount of time or with a certain score, resulting in high placement among other players. Trying and failing repeatedly to place on a game’s leaderboard can cause frustration, discontent, and even outright rage. Frustration can also occur as a result of a perceived or actual lack of progress in a game, which can be either the player’s fault or bad game design. Games that don’t reward you with enough materials to play effectively or don’t quantify progress in a meaningful way can cause players to feel like they’re spinning their wheels. Quantifiable, highly visible, and concrete markers of progress are one of the advantages that video games have over real life; in fact, it’s why many of us play them. When these markers are unclear or absent, it can make advancement in a game feel arbitrary, resulting in stress.

“Games with bad design” also include games with bad controls. Commands or moves that are difficult to execute or require a sequence of carefully-timed button presses, like some fighting games, can cause frustration because of their complexity. Outside of fighting games, good controls are also important in genres like puzzle games, which frequently require the precise placement of objects or other materials. (Imagine how much more difficult Portal would be if your portals only hit their mark 50% of the time.) Getting stuck on a puzzle or not being able to figure out a mind-bending riddle in a game are two more examples of stressors in single-player games.

Stressors Surrounding Games

Almost as important as the stressors within games themselves are the stressors and circumstances that surround our times of play. Physical circumstances can cause discontent with games: playing extremely late at night or early in the morning can cause a drop in perceived and actual skill levels, which in turn can become frustrating when your results don’t match what you think you’re capable of. Eating lots of junk food while playing and not getting enough sleep – because of too much play or other things, like work – can cause players to become upset much faster than they would otherwise (I’m guilty of both of those).

Perhaps some of the most serious stressors occur when players bring outside frustrations into their play. If something isn’t going well in your life, like a breakup or a lost job, it’s easy to inadvertently bring those negative events into your play. Gaming is supposed to be entertainment, an escape from the mundaneness of everyday life; it’s not healthy to cling to the things that are causing you stress, especially when you’re trying to relax. On the flip side, players who find themselves gaming for longer and longer periods of time in order to avoid thinking about or dealing with something serious in their life are more vulnerable to gaming addiction, a serious condition. Playing for the wrong reasons, like to avoid handling something in the real world or binging a game for hours to try to beat someone in an unhealthy rivalry, are more likely to increase the amount of stress you feel while gaming.

While gaming is a fun, relaxing, and engagingly competitive experience for many people, it can also be a hard, negative, and downright harmful experience for others. Much of this is highly individual: what’s stressful to one person might be completely fine to another. It’s important to remember that there’s another human on the other side of the screen, and that what you’re saying or the way in which you’re expressing your negativity may affect them in ways you don’t know about.

Each person is unique. If you’re not having fun while gaming, it’s important to listen to your own body and mind when playing in order to figure out what’s causing you stress and what you can do to deal with it. In the next article, we’ll discuss what can be done to minimize, defuse, and treat some of these stressors in order to make gaming a more positive and healthy experience for everyone. There’s already enough frustration and tilt in the world – as a community, gamers should be working to lower each other’s stress levels, not raise them.

Continue to: Tackling Stress In Games – Part 2: Minimizing Tilt