Illustration: Jim Cooke (G/O Media)
We’ve all done it. One minute, you’re watching Jim say something mean to Dwight; the next, you’re waking up to a screen that asks “Are you still watching The Office (U.S.)?”
While you might feel a bit sheepish when Netflix scolds you for falling asleep to its offerings, the use of media as a sleep aid is pretty common. In a 2016 study published in Behavioral Sleep Medicine that queried more than 800 adults between the ages of 18 and 94, a quarter of respondents said they use music to fall asleep, about a third listed TV, and nearly 40 percent mentioned picking up a book. Ten percent boot up a video game. The study found that participants who used media to doze off scored higher on the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, meaning they slept worse than those who fell asleep unaided. The study also found that those who fell asleep to media went to bed later, but also got up later, meaning that, while they might not have slept great, they didn’t lose sleep due to games or television. (Fun fact for fans of middling mid-2000s shooters: The researchers call this result “time shifting.”)
Still, it’s sleep—a resource most of us don’t get enough of. A 2015 joint consensus statement by the Sleep Research Society and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, two highly respected sleep research orgs, dialed the minimum ideal amount of sleep down to seven hours from the commonly-accepted eight. But, according to research out of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 35 percent of American adults often miss that mark. In a 2014 poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), 45 percent of respondents reported that insufficient sleep had affected their “daily activities.” Regularly missing out on sleep can, among other things, increase your blood pressure, weaken your immune system, dampen your sex drive, make you less alert, and increase your appetite.
There are a gazillion sleep hacks on the market. If zoning out to sitcom reruns beats staring at the ceiling thinking about that dumb thing you said in an earlier meeting, can a few rounds of Fortnite be used in the same way? Should you use video games to fall asleep?
“Being a sleep doctor, my first impulse is, ‘Hey, don’t play video games. Turn it off. Pick up a book,’” Dr. Nitun Verma, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, told Kotaku in a phone interview. “But I just fell asleep playing a video game two weeks ago.” (Curious readers: Verma was playing Pondo’s bowling mini-game in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.)
But let’s be honest: We’re all busy people, and if the few hours before bed are the only time you get to level-up your battle pass, you’re probably going to take it. Here’s how games affect your sleep—both positively and negatively—and how you can mitigate some of the negative effects.
How video games affect your sleep cycle
Among somnologists, it’s widely accepted that the actual act of dozing off is a result of two body processes: “process S” sleep and “process C” sleep, or what you might know as a circadian rhythm. The two “work in concert with each other,” Dr. Azizi Seixas, a sleep expert and an assistant professor at NYU’s School of Medicine, told Kotaku on a call last week.
Process S sleep is linear: The hours pass by, and your energy reserves wane. Process S recharges, so to speak, after a good night’s sleep. Process C, on the other hand, ebbs and flows throughout the day. (That’s why you may feel an “afternoon slump” around 2:00 or 3:00 p.m., which dissipates before dinnertime.) At the end of the day, when you have a confluence of the two processes—when process S is at a peak and process C is at a lull—you’ll fall asleep. But playing video games can knock your process C out of whack for several reasons, ultimately preventing sleep.
Video games put out blue light.
Plenty of factors—noise, light, caffeine—can have an impact on process C sleep. Even the most adrenaline-pumping Uncharted set piece isn’t caffeinated, of course, but most video games are heavy on sounds and lights. What’s more, the screens you likely use to play video games give off what’s known as blue light. “Our eyes are sensitive to particular wavelengths. The wavelength in particular is 500 nanometers—that’s blue light,” said Verma. “Blue light affects circadian rhythms.” It’s been shown that blue light—the light that comes off screens like your phone or your Nintendo Switch—can interrupt sleep.
Auditory “microarousals” can keep you alert.
Noise is a more insidious factor. “There’s a difference between the role of noise as an annoyance versus noise as a physiological stimulant,” said Seixas. He brought up the idea of urban newcomers: When you first move to a dense city, horns and sirens might actively bother you. Live there for a while, though, and you’ll stop noticing them; those same horns and sirens fade into the background as white noise. Still, your body physically hears them, and your brain registers them as “microarousals.” Even if you don’t realize it, they perk up your mind. Similarly, the sounds of a video game—the ambient sounds of a strategy game, or the background noise of a Pokémon battle—will put your brain on alert, no matter how low the volume (unless it’s muted).
A “surprise” factor can keep you awake.
If you’re going to play games before bed, you might think a relaxing game like Gris or Abzu would be a better choice than the latest Battle-fill-in-the-blank or War-whatever. But, according to Verma, the game’s content matters less than how new a game is to you. “If I just got this game, and I just started playing it, there’s no way I’ll fall asleep,” said Verma. “Everything is new, it’s unknown, everything is a surprise. These things wake you up.”
However, when you’re engaging in repetitive behavior—grinding for experience points or farming for loot—you aren’t building up as much anticipation as when you jump into an unknown game. “In a way, there’s almost nothing to look forward to,” said Verma. That can make you fall asleep.
Why you should consider video games as a sleep aid
Given the above, it would seem safe to say you shouldn’t play games before hitting the sack, right? Well, not so fast. Despite the drawbacks, games have some sleep-inducing bona fides, though it’s mostly because they’re not as bad as other common alternatives.
Video games don’t pose the same dependency risk as sleep medicine.
Despite the negative effects video games can have on your sleep, relying on media as a sleep aid can actually be a far healthier alternative to over-the-counter sleep medicine. Melatonin supplements, pills like diphenhydramine (Aleve PM), or prescription drugs like Ambien are all short-term solutions. “The biggest risk with sleep medication is that you can take it today and, tomorrow, you could still have trouble falling asleep,” said Verma. “The sleep medicine only helps that night.”
Because of the short-term effectiveness of sleep medicine, it’s not difficult to develop a dependency. Use it on a Monday, you may fall asleep just fine. Then you skip it on Tuesday and have trouble drifting off. What’s to stop you from using it on Wednesday? Thursday? All weekend long?
“If there is a way to fall asleep reliably without sleep medication, that’s almost always better,” said Verma. “Now, is that me prescribing video games to people who can’t sleep? No. But if you have a choice of falling asleep while playing a video game or taking a sleep medicine, yeah, I’d choose video games.”
Playing games beats doing nothing.
The surprise factor of games can keep you awake, but playing video games might actually be more effective than staring at the ceiling. Despite what you may have heard, counting sheep doesn’t do much to induce sleep. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that, if you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, you should get up and do something “relaxing.” A quick meditation session might be relaxing for one person; running and rerunning the Proving Grounds in Borderlands 3 might be relaxing for someone else. Playing a game or a part of a game you know inside and out can have a calming effect that might help you sleep. Just be sure to, as Verma said, steer clear of anything new and surprising.
Replaying an old video game might even be a better sleep hack than reading a new book. Not knowing what’s going to happen compels you to turn the page. Next thing you know, it’s sunrise, and you’re itching to find out whether or not Kvothe learns the name of the wind. (That said, rereading a book you’ve already dogeared to tatters is probably a better bet. No blue light, no microarousals, no surprises.)
How you can use video games to help you fall asleep:
Play a game you’re familiar with. It bears repeating: A bombastic game that’s predictable will be more effective than a quiet game that’s unpredictable. “It’s like watching Seinfeld reruns,” said Verma. “I’ve seen the show a million times. I know how it’s going to end. If I’m going to watch anything before bed, that’s awesome. But if I were watching a movie I’ve been waiting to see, and I don’t know how it’s going to end, there’s no chance I’m going to fall asleep.”
Play a low-stress mini-game. Take Pondo’s mini-game from Breath of the Wild, for example. It’s repetitive. It requires minimal engagement. “I’m just waiting, and, in a way, it’s not really that exciting,” said Verma. “It’s these small minigame components that, surprisingly, were making me sleep.” (Grinding also neatly fits into this category.)
Keep the big screens out of your bedroom. “The typical advice that most sleep doctors give is that [you should keep] as few devices, as few TVs and big screens, in the bedroom as possible,” said Verma. Living in a small apartment or with roommates might naturally preclude this, but if you can keep the flatscreen in the living room, do that. If you can only play games in your bedroom, smaller screens, like those on the Switch or a phone, give off less total blue light than large screens.
Turn the brightness down. With smartphones, you can turn on “night mode,” which reduces the output of blue light by shifting the screen’s color outputs to the “warmer” end of the spectrum. Video games don’t really give you this option. Even the Nintendo Switch’s basic black background theme, which you can find in “System Settings,” won’t help you there. After all, when you power up your Switch, you don’t spend the time staring at the menu, do you? Still, according to Verma, turning down the brightness will help a bit.
Turn the volume down. As Seixas said, you want to steer clear of those auditory microarousals. Try playing a game without sound if you can. For games that all but demand you listen to them, the lowest possible volume can help.
Talk to your doctor. If gaming is interrupting your sleep, or if you’re having serious trouble falling asleep in a general sense, talk to your doctor to try and find out if there’s a deeper reason you’re having trouble dozing off. An article on the internet can only tell you so much.
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