Back in early 2019, when social gatherings were normal, I attended a preview event for Doom Eternal. It was the only time my Apple Watch has ever given me a warning. The screen read: “Apple Watch detected a heart rate that rose above 120 BPM while you appeared to be inactive.”
The punchline is that I wasn’t even playing the famously frantic shooter when I got the notification. I was just standing in a room full of my peers, awash with anxiety. But the irony of this red-cheeked moment of professional fear made me ponder something: As someone who is horrendous at hiding their emotions, what do my vitals look like when I’m playing video games? And could understanding my body while gaming help me improve my relationship with the hobby?
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This thought lingered in my head for a while but flared very recently thanks to Twitch. With high-stress games like Among Us, Dead By Daylight and Phasmophobia becoming all the rage, some speedrunners and streamers have taken it upon themselves to let their audiences see their vital signs while they play. It sounds like too much information, but the results are almost always interesting – or at the very least, incredibly funny.
Take this March 2020 clip from Scottish comedian Limmy, as he streams the asymmetrical survival horror game Dead By Daylight. Titled “Heartrate of a killer,” you can see the monitor spike to 97 BPM as he wipes out a troupe of survivors. Yet in October, Limmy posted another clip, claiming to have the “lowest heartrate on Twitch” at 33 BPM. Interestingly, he’s playing exactly the same role in both videos, wiping out innocents as Michael Myers. So, what happened between March and October?
Then there’s this great video from Vikkstar123 playing Among Us, a game where you have to betray and murder your closest friends to succeed. There’s a fascinating moment at around six minutes in, where Impostor Vik’s heartrate spikes to 107 BPM at the start of a meeting, and then cascades to 72 as his name is cleared and the remaining crewmates shift suspicion onto someone else. His face barely changes throughout, but the extra layer of biometrics provides a level of understanding to the audience – if they get a visual read on how a player is feeling, they can see through any poker face.
But is there anything beyond this information? I recently got a press release from tech company Garmin, which seems to think so. The news concerned its Instinct ‘Esports Edition’ Smartwatch. Essentially, Garmin posits that eSports players can use the data captured on this piece of wearable technology (usually used by athletes) to help them understand their body better when they game. It arrives alongside a piece of software called STR3AMUP! – which feels extremely 2007 in its naming conventions – but allows users to broadcast their heart rate, stress level and body battery metrics to a live audience, via an overlay.
Whether this is just a gimmick or a genuine boon for professional players isn’t for me to decide as a filthy casual, but in the name of science, I thought I would try and use biometrics to figure out what gaming does to the average player’s body.
Above you can see my biometric data for November 18, from noon to midnight. During my typical workday, it’s clear there are peaks of stress and valleys of rest, and I move between these emotive states in a clear pattern. Such is the chaos of freelance…
At 4pm, I started playing Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War to finish a guide before the end of my typical working hours, and you can see that the intensity of juggling deadlines caused my stress to spike higher than ever. The cocktail of a tense multiplayer match and a lingering commission is something I should definitely be mindful of. But it’s at around 7pmwhen the real fun begins.
After hours of blissful rest, I sat down to “take a load off” after dinner and proceeded to commit to nearly three hours of persistent stress while gaming, tanking my body battery gains harder than a typical workday ever could. What happened is that I had started playing Call Of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s Zombies mode with a close friend.
It is abundantly clear to me now that this is not the game to wind down with. We were trying to execute a complex glitch that would let us farm XP, and we failed multiple times, leading to some precarious situations. Beyond the fact that Call Of Duty: Zombies is fundamentally scary, the stress makes sense. Seeing this on a graph made me realise more than ever that this is a game with no breathing room. It’s exciting and plenty of fun, but your body can’t ever let up when you’re fighting the endless undead horde – it’s pure fight or flight.
Yet what makes this data even more surprising is that at around 9:45pm, we made the switch to Demon’s Souls, a notoriously stressful, although magnificent game. You can see the menu-swapping handover process with the only moments of blue rest in the entire evening. What’s interesting is that generally, the soothing tones of Boletaria clearly cooled me down a tad. But at the top of the hour, there was a serious spike…
This is where – in between summons and carrying 17,000 precious souls – I was invaded by a dastardly player, aptly called ‘Nightmare Man_00’. My stress level nearly superseded my “juggling multiple commissions” state from earlier in the day, and rightly so, I feel.
The random peaks then returned as we approached midnight and my body started to slump. My in-game performance got similarly sloppy, and I started dying to the same enemy in the Shrine Of Storms and disappointing my co-op partner. We made it to the boss door a few times, but our attempts started to feel futile.
I turned the game off feeling defeated. Looking at the biometrics, it’s clear that I should have stopped after the fright I got from that invasion, but unfortunately, that was long before I finished my play session for the night.
There are strange emotions that arise from viewing a chart like this. Is this useful information, or would it just be evident if I was more self-aware? Of course, I’m going to perform worse when I’m tired, but seeing the data laid out in front of me is giving me a real reason to conserve my energy in the future, and not just keep playing for the sake of it.
When you’re busy working or engaged by a gripping game, you’re not incentivised to stop and think about the optimisation of your own performance – mainly because we’re not robots. I think this is why wearable technology could be so useful for professional streamers, who are engaged with and can offer something back to their community. But with data-driven hindsight, even I, a filthy casual, am going to be more mindful about the approach I take towards my most favoured hobby. I think I’m going to have to, if I ever want to beat Demon’s Souls…