You know how when you’re playing a really immersive video game like Call of Duty, you get really into it? Some people call that the gamer zone. Science has found that when you’re in that mindset, your mind can also deflect pain sensations!

Recent research has shown that immersing oneself in an avatar or virtual character in a video game can affect his or her response to real-life experiences. Video games “numb” our sensitivity to important body signals and alter how we experience the here-and-now. Though this might seem disturbing and a reason to avoid excessive video game or alternate reality experiences, the ability of a video game to mask certain sensations could actually help people lead a healthier life by easing the physical stress associated with exercise.

The research was published in the Springer-published journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review and comes from a study conducted by Ulrich Weger of the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany and Stephen Loughnan of Melbourne University in Australia.

Researchers from both studies demonstrated what occurs when video game players assume the role of a non-human character with automaton-like, robotic movements in an immersive game, and then looked out how this affects pain sensations. Study participants provided information on how often video game play frequency in a given week and were then asked to manually retrieve paperclips from ice cold water. Researchers compared the correlation between the number of clips retrieved to the number of hours of game playing each week.

A second experiment was then conducted where participants played either an immersive or non-immersive game, and were then asked to perform the paper clip retrieval. Players who had participated in the immersive game play showed reduced sensitivity to pain and were able to remove more clips than those who had played the non-immersive game. Their response to images of people experiencing displeasure was also measured and the immersive players showed greater indifference than non-immersive players. Clearly, boring games just don’t have the same affect.

Don't expect the same results from a boring game.
Don’t expect the same results from a boring game.

Desensitization to Pain Affects Real-Life Experiences

Researchers concluded that study participants took on the automaton-like characteristics of their avatars and were desensitized to pain experiences. Their in-game point of view extended beyond the virtual environment and affected their real-life experiences.

Dr. Weger explains why an aspect of this study could be misleading, stating “We see this blurring as a reality of our time but also as a confused and misleading development that has begun to shape society. We believe this should be balanced by other developments, for example, by working on our awareness of what it really means to be human. We should also look into how we can best make use of the beneficial applications of robotic or artificial intelligence advances, so as to be able to use our freed up resources and individual potentials wisely rather than becoming enslaved by those advances.”

Ultimately, the developments in video gaming has made it easier to regard avatars and non-human characters as being quite similar to humans.

What This Means for Fitness and Health

While the first inclination is to be concerned about an alternate reality universe that makes humans less sensitive to pain, there are beneficial aspects. Anyone who is trying to improve health and fitness can utilize the pain desensitization to improve his or her performance. Getting immersed in a VR fitness environment can allow you to do more and get better results than a typical gym environment, where you experience every movement to its fullest extent. This virtual reality “mind over matter” tool could actually make for better athletic performance and make it easier to put more effort into fitness and weight loss.

-Steven Runnels

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