WORK/LIFE BALANCING ACT

Are online games a waste of time or relief for the mind?

 
 
 <span class="cutline_leadin">FUN AND GAMES:</span> A smartphone user plays the ‘Candy Crush Saga’ puzzle.
FUN AND GAMES: A smartphone user plays the ‘Candy Crush Saga’ puzzle.
Simon Dawson / Bloomberg

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After a day of negotiating legal contracts, Gail Serota sinks into her couch with her iPad and immerses herself in playing Candy Crush. The Miami real estate attorney finds playing the mobile game relaxes her. “It’s a good stress relief.”

Whether for relaxation or diversion, full time workers are squeezing time into their schedules for mobile games. They are launching flying birds, flicking onscreen candies and building words on virtual boards using their smartphones or tablets. Spil Games reports about 700 million people play online games, or about 44 percent of the world’s online population. And those numbers are expected to rise.

The habit can be addictive — and not just for actor Alex Baldwin, who was kicked off a plane for refusing to turn off his phone in the middle of a Words with Friends match. Other players admit to being so immersed they have left their children stranded at sports practices, gone late to work and even injured themselves as they tried to reach new levels of play.

Serota of Weiss Serota Helfman reluctantly acknowledges that at times, she has become so caught up in completing a level of Candy Crush that she has arrived late at an event. “When you’re in the moment, you’re focusing on the game and you’re just not thinking about other things.”

Not long ago, most gamers were young men playing on at-home consoles. Now, the advent of smartphones and tablets has changed gaming so much so that 46 percent of players are women, according to Spil Games’ 2013 state of online gaming report.

“We have so much on our minds and just want an escape,” says Marci Siegel, a medical recruiter and working mom who enjoys Candy Crush and Words with Friends. Siegel estimates she spends about seven hours a week playing the games on her phone. “Sometimes, my day is so crazy that I need a little guilty pleasure.”

Critics contend online games are a time waster. Gamers argue it brings balance to their lives by offering entertainment, stress relief, social connections and mental stimulation. For players that log in with Facebook or Google Plus, the games allow friendly competition and social interaction.

Recognizing the appeal, employers have begun finding ways to leverage gaming in the workplace. Tapping experts, they are designing games to motivate workers, recruit talent, teach new skills, boost performance and encourage wellness.

Through Facebook, Marriott Hotels has introduced “My Marriott Hotel,” which offers players a virtual chance to manage a hotel restaurant kitchen before moving on to other areas of hotel operations. Marriott said it wanted to harness the exploding popularity of social media gaming to help generate interest in hospitality careers and fill positions worldwide.

Cannon uses game design — called gamification — for training. Through virtual software that simulates a copier, trainees drag and drop various parts to the virtual machine to learn its work and repair mechanisms.

And the United Kingdom’s Department of Work and Pensions uses gamification to encourage innovative thinking through a social game called Idea Street. Game mechanics, points and leader boards have encouraged thousands of employees to submit ideas. To maintain interest. an innovation team publishes a weekly newsletter that focuses on the ideas gaining the most attention and those that may need tweaking.

Going forward, experts say workplaces likely will show more interest in gamification. In 2012, 20 percent of Forbes Global 2000 companies featured a gamified application. Research firm Gartner predicts that by the end of this year, 70 percent of those companies will have implemented at least one.

Gartner also predicts some attempts will fail. “It’s not a magical elixir,” explains Brian Burke, research vice president at Gartner and author of the soon to be released book Gamify: How Gamification Motivates People to do Extraordinary Things. “It’s not just about entertainment,” Burke says. “It’s about designing an experience, creating ongoing engagement and customizing the application as you go.”

For workers like Ryan Bard, who grew up playing video games, the draw is positive reinforcement — a rarity in many workplaces. Just about every interactive game employs some kind of reward system to keep players engaged.

Bard, a father of two and information technology support provider at a South Florida vacation services firm, says it is the micro-achievements that entice him to spend hours of free time playing games on consoles, computers, and mobile devices.

“It’s not just beating a game and getting to the end, there are lots of layers and rewards built in.” Rather than worry about what needs to get done at work or home, Bard says he slips into the role of tank commander using his skills to crush his foes and upgrade his artillery. “There definitely are endorphins released when you pull off a win.”

Of course, it’s hard to deny the addictive nature of mobile gaming with challenges and prizes that are dribbled out to keep players hooked – and spending money. One out of every three online gamers has spent real money on virtual goods, according to market research firm NPD Group, which recorded spending of nearly $6 billion on digital game content in 2013.

Maria Redlich tries to control the time and money she spends on games. For five years, she has spent three hours or more a day playing Mafia Wars, Castle Age and more recently, Uno and Scrabble on her computer and tablet. A former Miami-Dade classroom teacher and now a reading coach, Redlich says the online games provide an outlet for her frustration while testing her resolve. “I see people spending a lot of money and I could easily do that do but I have to remind myself it’s supposed to be a way to relax.”

Dr. Kimberly Young, an Internet and gaming addiction expert, urges caution. She said gameplay crosses over into addiction when it causes consequences because of the amount of time or money spent playing. “If you’re jeopardizing your career because of it or doing it at work, that’s a problem,” said Young, founder of the Center for Internet Addiction in Bradford, Penn.

Serota says when she began to feel addicted to playing Candy Crush, she removed the application from her phone for a few months. Recently, she slipped back into the game again on her iPad, though now she spends more time enjoying Words with Friends and touts the benefits. “I think it keeps my brain sharp.”

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal, a provider of news and advice on work/life issues. To suggest topics or provide comments, connect with her at www.workinglifebalancingact.com or balancegal@gmail.com.

Read more Cindy Krischer Goodman stories from the Miami Herald

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