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Ergonomic Office Chairs vs. Gaming Chairs: What’s the Difference?

Avatar of Autonomous Autonomous | Oct 27, 2020
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When it comes to shopping for a chair, you’ll encounter two major categories in the mid-range and high-end markets. On the one hand, you have ergonomically-designed office chairs. On the other, you have gaming chairs. What are they, and what’s the difference between them?

The Basics of Ergonomic Chairs

Ergonomic office chairs run a wide range of designs and feature sets. Low-end office chairs, for example, are often little more than a slightly padded chair with wheels. They lack most of the features that make a chair ergonomic. Mid-range and high-end office chairs, meanwhile, pack in ergonomic features. 

Ergonomic features in a chair include lumbar support, adjustable angles, adjustable headrests (or the presence of a headrest at all), and the ability to position armrests freely. Adjustable height, a sliding seat pan, and a tilt lock are also often available.

The material used to make the back and seats of an ergonomic office chair can vary as well. Some high-end chairs are made of a breathable mesh, while others are lush, padded leather. Both can be acceptable in an ergonomic chair, so it comes down to the person’s preferences buying the chair.

The Basics of Gaming Chairs

Gaming chairs tend to be focused on a mid-range market. High-end gaming chairs don’t have a lot to differentiate themselves from mid-range chairs beyond branding and aesthetics. However, they’re too fancy and stylized to suit a low-end task chair market, so there aren’t many low-end gaming chairs. 

Gaming chairs have some level of ergonomics built into them, but not as much as ergonomic office chairs. Office chairs are meant for use for hours at a time, where gaming chairs are more meant for a couple of hours of gaming at most.

There are also several different primary designs for gaming chairs.

  • Rockers. Rocker chairs sit on the ground rather than being raised on wheels. They are not adjustable in height and are harder to position, and are more meant for casual gaming than dedicated use.
  • Racing. Racing chairs are similar in design to ergonomic office chairs, with a higher back, more adjustability, and additional features to make them more comfortable for extended use. When most people think of a gaming chair, this is the kind of chair they picture.
  • Battlestations. A "battlestation" is a combination of chair and desk, often integrating monitor arms and mounts for accessories like headsets. They range from excessive to insane in design.

Digging into the differences between each type of chair will, by necessity, be a variable experience. Gaming chairs have a wide range of features, but ergonomic office chairs have even more. Years of study and experimentation has gone into perfecting the ergonomic office chair, and the results in the high-end chair market are unbelievable. 

For the purposes of this post, we’ll primarily be comparing racing-style gaming chairs with mid-to-high-end office chairs. Low-end task chairs don’t compare, nor do extreme gaming chairs.

Lumbar Support

Lumbar Support

Proper lumbar support was one of the first major innovations in the ergonomic design of chairs. Sitting increases pressure on the lumbosacral discs in the lower back. This leads to worse posture, and poor posture leads to back pain. The advent of lumbar support for the lower back made office chairs much more bearable to sit in for hours every day.

Lumbar support is pretty similar across both gaming and office chairs. On the low end, gaming chairs either do not offer lumbar support or have a fixed lumbar pillow in place. High-end gaming chairs have an adjustable lumbar pillow. Similarly, low-end office chairs either have no lumbar support or fixed lumbar support behind the mesh back of the chair. High-end ergonomic office chairs have adjustable lumbar support, which can move up and down as well as in and out.

Headrests

Head rests

Headrests are another ergonomic development that allows for periods of rest throughout the day. When taking calls, reading, or otherwise performing tasks that do not need much head movement, a headrest is ideal to allow neck muscles to relax. This helps to reduce tension in the neck and shoulders and helps with maintaining posture.

Headrests are often optional for chairs. Low-end task chairs do not have them at all. Ergonomic chairs may have headrests, and those headrests may be fixed or adjustable. Some can be moved up and down; others can be tilted in and out. Gaming chairs, meanwhile, tend to fall flat in terms of headrests. Most of the time, they have a headrest that cannot be adjusted. This is due, in part, to branding; the headrest is the most visible part of a chair, which means it is the part most likely to be visible on a webcam or during a YouTube video. More on that later.

Ergonomic office chairs win out over gaming chairs in terms of headrests. The only advantage gaming chairs may have is that some of them have adjustable neck pillows, but this is not a standard feature.

Seat Design

Seat tilt

Ergonomic office chairs tend to have flat seats with a "waterfall" design that curls down and away beneath the thighs. This allows for more comfortable "feet on the floor" positioning when sitting, which is an essential part of good posture. The curled-down design also helps prevent legs from falling asleep or going numb in extended sitting sessions.

Gaming chairs are often designed the opposite. Gaming chairs are typically designed with a racing-style "bucket" seat, similar to what you find in high-end sports cars. It’s partially a prestige design and partially aimed for comfort during short gaming sessions. Ironically, the raised front in a car is designed to let the driver reach the pedals more easily. With no pedals to worry about, gamers end up not sitting with feet flat on the ground, hurting their overall posture in a gaming chair.

Another aspect of seat design is whether or not the seat pan is adjustable. Being able to move the seat pan in and out helps with posture adjustments. Typically, this only needs to be done once when fitting the chair, but the initial adjustment is the most important. Gaming chairs rarely offer an adjustable seat pan, which is challenging to work into a bucket seat design. Conversely, an ergonomic chair is more likely to have an adjustable seat pan, though not all models offer the option.

Wings

Wings are not what you might think of as a standard chair design element, but they’re very common in bucket seats and are very common in gaming chairs. Wings are raised edges to either side, which helps sitting position by enforcing a vertical rather than slouched posture. Gaming chairs typically have wings on either side of the back and either side of the seat pan. Ergonomic office chairs rarely have wings at all.

Adjustable Height

One of the more basic elements of modern chair design is adjustable height. From the cheapest office task chairs to the most high-end ergonomic designs, virtually all chairs have adjustable heights. In fact, adjusting the height of a chair is one of the simplest changes you can make to better fit your chair at your workstation.

Adjusting the height of a chair is simple. Make sure the top edge of the seat pan is level with your knees so that when you sit, your feet are flat on the floor. If your chair is too high, you’ll be tempted to slouch, or you’ll sit with a leg curled under you, both of which hurt your posture. If your chair is too low, you’re likely reaching too high to work at your desk.

The primary difference between low-end and high-end chairs is the quality of the gas cylinder used for regulating chair height. These cylinders can fail over time, and a chair will gradually lose height and need to be readjusted. This is the same between both office and gaming chairs.

Reclining

Adjustable back tilt reclining

The ability for a chair to recline is another feature more common in high-end chairs than mid-range chairs. In an office environment, you rarely need to recline, and reclining while working can lead to pain in the shoulders and wrists. Reclining may be useful for talking on the phone or taking a break from working, but it’s not an in-demand feature for many chairs.

Gaming chairs, meanwhile, always have a recline feature. Some are designed to recline all the way to 180 degrees, while others only reach 135 or so. 

When sitting, studies have shown that a reclined posture around 135 degrees is the best in terms of pressure on the spine. The trouble is, modern offices are not designed for this kind of posture. Unfortunately, reaching up to a desk still requires putting stress on arms, wrists, shoulders, and neck. Unless the rest of the office workstation is designed around this reclined position, it’s not good ergonomics.

Gaming chairs are more often used in a reclined position, as gamers can use controllers and don’t need to interact as much with their desks. 

Of course, using a standing desk and not using a chair is better than a reclined chair. It puts the least strain on the spine, with the least compression and the best posture.

Armrests

Adjustable Armrests

Armrests can be adjusted in several different dimensions: up and down, forward and back, twisting in and out, and even swinging out for ease of egress. Low-end chairs tend to have fixed armrests, while mid-range and high-end chairs tend to have more points of adjustment.

In general, gaming chairs tend to have more adjustments available for a given price point than comparable office chairs.

Armrest positioning may or may not be a selling point depending on the user’s environment and usage patterns. Office workers may find that armrests get in the way of a keyboard drawer, or hamper the chair’s ability to slide under a desk. Conversely, they may find properly adjusted armrests support and alleviate stress on their wrists while typing and using a mouse.

Aesthetics and Branding

The difference in aesthetics between a gaming chair and an office chair is immense. Gaming chairs are often designed for their looks above their function. They have bright colors, thick pads, a bucket seat design, and logos emblazoned on their headrests. They are designed to catch the attention of anyone watching a gamer during a Livestream, competition, or YouTube video. They put form over function.

Office chairs, meanwhile, are not designed for attention. More often, they are designed to have a modern, sleek look to suit modern office spaces. Sometimes, they may have a company logo, but generally, they are a simple design of black, silver, gray, and leather.

Pricing and Sponsorship

Gaming Chair Basics

Gaming chairs tend to be over-priced for the range of features they offer. In part, this is due to branding. Chairs offer a certain prestige element to a gamer’s setup; a chair that matches their computer hardware or their personal brand may be more attractive than a basic office chair. They may also be using the chair to help advertise for affiliate relationships they have with the chair owners.

This also commonly comes up when gaming chair brands send free chairs to gamers in exchange for that advertising. After all, if a high-profile streamer or YouTuber uses that chair, it must be high quality, right?

Office chairs offer a broader range of designs and features for any given price point. Low-end office chairs might not have quite as many ergonomic adjustments as low-end gaming chairs, but they quickly outstrip the competition as the price point goes higher. 

Overall Analysis

Gaming chairs may be better for some situations where ergonomics and long hours of use are not a top concern. Since they tend to have fewer points of adjustment, it’s easier to feel like they are correctly adjusted for your body. An ergonomic office chair takes a little more time and attention to adjust properly but will reward you with a much more comfortable and safer experience over time. 

A quality office chair is an excellent investment. It’s not flashy, it’s not branded, and it’s not going to cradle you the way a racing bucket chair will, but it will be more comfortable for long-term use. A low-end gaming chair may beat out a low-end office or task chair, but ergonomics will win the day.

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