Cut food cravings by … playing TETRIS?

I recently listened to a podcast interview with Jane McGonigal. I didn’t know who Jane was before this interview, but I like Tim Ferriss – the interviewer – so I was willing to take a listen. Jane is a game researcher and game designer, and her message is that games are a fantastic platform for creating change – whether that be global, local, or self.

She told a really fascinating story about how she pulled herself out of a serious dopamine-deprived, concussive state by creating her own game that she called “Jane the concussion slayer”. This game used key elements of many games: First, she had to stay optimism and set goals. Second she had to involve friends – seek help. Third, she had to learn to read her symptoms and know how much she could do or not do.

For her game, she created an Avatar or superhero and focused on her strengths and “superpowers”, she solicited help from her sister and other family who gave her “quests” (thereby giving meaning/purpose to each day,) and she found ways to create optimism by devising ‘power-ups’ (in her case, things that made her happy). She would collect these TETRISpower-ups daily. In the end, she credits this game as being instrumental in her recovery. (And since then, they have introduced it to thousands of people and have found it’s having a positive effect on dopamine levels and recoery It’s a really interesting story. I recommend listening to it.

But one of the more surprising things I learned from Jane was the research that has been done on using games (such as Tetris or Candy Crush Saga), to help minimize food cravings! Jane mentioned a study that’s been done, that shows that by replacing the visual imagery that helps form a craving, with the colorful moving imagery of games such as Tetris, the cravings diminish.

I found this on Pubmed on the actual research:

Elaborated Intrusion Theory (EI) postulates that imagery is central to craving, therefore a visually based task should decrease craving and craving imagery. This study provides the first laboratory test of this hypothesis in naturally occurring, rather than artificially induced, cravings. Participants reported if they were experiencing a craving and rated the strength, vividness and intrusiveness of their craving. They then either played ‘Tetris’ or they waited for a computer program to load (they were told it would load, but it was designed not to). Before task completion, craving scores between conditions did not differ; after, however, participants who had played ‘Tetris’ had significantly lower craving and less vivid craving imagery. The findings support EI theory, showing that a visuospatial working memory load reduces naturally occurring cravings, and that Tetris might be a useful task for tackling cravings outside the laboratory.


So there you have it! Play Tetris and lose weight 🙂

Ok, there’s more to it than that, but that got me thinking more about games, and Jane’s idea of using the elements of games to change our world. What if we could create a game — similar to Jane the Concussion Slayer  — that would help us reach our goals, such as losing weight or eating healthier.

Using her steps, for example, I might create my Avatar: Lynn the Sugar Slayer. I go about the world fighting against the evils of sugar. Sugar is taking over the world, and serving up temptations on a daily basis. My role is to find ways to enjoy food while avoiding the temptation of sugar every day. When confronted with sugar, I use my super-powers of willpower,  distraction and substitution to meet the evil head on and knock it down. I can collect powerups — which could be any activity that gives me pleasure and keeps me from giving into a craving (e.g. playing candy crush(!), exercising, drinking water, filling up on healthy, sugar-free snacks, enjoying a sunset…). My goal is to collect 3 powerups a day, and to work toward surviving any deadly attacks by using my super-powers and keeping an inventory of power-ups. 🙂

Sounds fun, right? Ready to play?

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