Playing Tetris Can Reduce Urges to Eat, Smoke, Drink

Three minutes of the game reduced cravings by 24 percent in a recent study.
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The never-ending falling blocks of Tetris have caused innumerable people untold amounts of frustration. YouTube star Hank Green even has a song memorializing the evil of “The Man Who Throws The Tetris Piece.” But a new study published in Appetite shows that the unwinnable game may be good for something other than wasting hours, days, lives—reducing cravings.

The Plymouth University researchers—graduate student Jessica Skorka-Brown and professors Jackie Andrade and Jon May—tested Elaborated Intrusion Theory, which says that cravings rely heavily on visual imagery. They write that this is the first test of that theory using naturally-occurring cravings. To capture the 119 participants’ natural cravings (rather than artificially inducing them in the lab by having them evaluate chocolates or something),  asked them when they came in for the experiment if they were currently craving something, and to rate their craving from 1 to 100. Participants completed the Craving Experience Questionnaire, which measured the “strength, imagery, vividness, and intrusiveness of their current craving.”

Then participants sat down in front of a computer, which either loaded Tetris for them to play, or looked like it was going to load Tetris but never actually did. They either played Tetris, or didn’t, for three minutes and then answered the same questions about their craving, describing what happened to the craving while they were playing the game (or, you know, sitting there).

(YouTube)

Of the 119 people that participated, 80 reported craving something: 58 people wanted food or drink of some kind, 10 wanted caffeine, and 12 wanted nicotine. Their mean craving levels were “reasonably high,” the researchers write. Playing Tetris reduced their cravings by about 24 percent. The relationship between playing the game and craving reduction remained statistically significant, even when the researchers accounted for a general lessening of the craving over time, or removed the people who were only slightly craving something.

Obviously a 24 percent reduction doesn’t mean the craving is gone, but neither is that nothing. “Tetris reduced the vividness and frequency of craving imagery, as well as craving intensity,” the study reads. Tetris is a very visual task, which the researchers posit may be why it seems to impede the strength of craving imagery.

Strange as it may seem, Tetris could actually be a helpful tool for those trying to quit smoking, or just avoid indulging in an unhealthy snack. Because despite its frustrations, Tetris is one of the most popular video games ever—people like playing it. And if three minutes of arranging colored blocks could help curb a craving, it might be worth logging onto FreeTetris.org the next time you feel one hit.

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Julie Beck is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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