When does someone’s tendency to turn to the games on their smartphone become more of a problem than a diversion? Many people play smartphone video games when they are bored or seeking distraction, but so-called “escape players” who default to playing as a primary way of coping may be on the path to problems associated with excessive gaming, experts are finding.

Researchers at the University of Waterloo used the popular smartphone app-based game, Candy Crush, to investigate their hypothesis. They suspected that players were searching for a state of “flow,” a deep state of focus and loss of awareness of time and space.

Using a group of 60 players of various skill levels, researchers had participants play the game at a range of difficulties with the option to continue gameplay after each round.

The more an escape player feels that a game is an effective distraction from boredom or unhappiness, the more likely they are to play the game for longer periods of time.

It is the balance between challenge and mastery that researchers were interested in; what balance of each produces the sought-after “flow” state? If a game is too easy, players may fail to arrive at a flow state because the game isn’t involving enough. At too difficult a level, players may fail to achieve flow because they cannot achieve sufficient mastery of the task.

At optimal levels, players may experience mental arousal, flow, reduced feelings of boredom and, notably, the urge to continue playing.

Those who became disproportionately engrossed in gameplay were identified as “escape players”. The more an escape player feels that a game is an effective distraction from boredom or unhappiness, the more likely they are to play the game for longer periods of time.

Researchers characterized the group of escape players as struggling to maintain attention and engage with the “real” environment. The risk of turning to smartphone apps to alleviate every feeling of boredom is that it can lead one to spend excessive time gaming, which has documented negative consequences for players’ health.

The researchers characterized excessive gameplay as having difficulty disengaging from the world of the game, and frequently disrupting one’s normal routines in order to play. For about ten percent of players, excessive gameplay is associated with increased depression and anxiety symptoms, as well as aggression or shyness, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, excessive cellphone use more generally.

As the pandemic has raged on for the better part of a year and a half, screen time is up and healthy hobbies are down for many Americans. There’s never a wrong time to take stock of one’s screen use, particularly if you’re an avid smartphone gamer yourself.

There are other ways to achieve a flow state; they include practicing something challenging like a musical instrument, reading or throwing yourself into activities like dancing, running or cycling. These not only improve health, they offer the combination of effort and reward that researchers found to produce the desirable flow state.

The researchers hope that their findings will inspire game makers to incorporate tools to help limit their screen use into their user interfaces. For users battling problematic escape play that takes them away from their daily routines and responsibilities, simple solutions like these may help curtail excessive gaming.

The study is published online in the journal, Computers in Human Behavior.