A recent study has found that playing Tetris may help reduce cravings for things like cigarettes, alcohol, or food. The study followed 31 college students aged 18-27 and is the first of its kind outside of a laboratory.
The students were prompted by text to report their cravings seven times a day and to proactively report cravings as well. Fifteen of them were tasked with playing Tetris on an iPod for three minutes before reporting their cravings again.
In 30% of occasions, cravings for food and non-alcoholic beverages were reduced. Those kinds of cravings made up about two-thirds of the things students wanted to be doing. Drugs, such as caffeine, alcohol, and cigarettes, made up about 21% of the remaining cravings, with the rest consisting of actions such as sleeping, socializing, or sex.
The researchers want to do more with their study, especially because Tetris seemed to work repeatedly for the people it helped. Because of that, it might have value as a support tool because it’s not simply a novel experience that loses potency over time. For those helped by playing Tetris, it can continue to be useful over time.
Researchers think that Tetris functions largely because it is visually stimulating and requires the player to pay significant attention. In the case of most cravings, the people having them imagine themselves engaging in the craved activity. When playing Tetris, though, it’s difficult to focus on the craving for, say, cigarettes, because you can’t imagine yourself smoking when you’re trying to line up blocks in the game.
With more research we can be sure, but it seems like the key is to prompt the brain to focus on something other than the craving. Games like Tetris work because, in addition to distracting the player, they are engaging and reward players for taking the action by allowing them to accomplish something.