Video games attract more than their fair share of criticism. It’s understandable, in a way, given that gamers spend inordinate amounts of time submerged in their virtual worlds, whether questing into some backwoods dungeon for meaningless loot or committing horrendous and graphically portrayed acts of torture and murder while sporting a wide, beaming smile. Particularly, violent games are often demonised in the media due to a general parental concern that they’re going to warp the minds of their children and turn them into depraved murderers or remorseless car-jackers. Previously, you’d be forced to argue back on the grounds that much of consumer media is violent, and we haven’t all succumbed to murderous rages, so games probably won’t cause it either. However, now gaming is becoming more of a mainstream hobby, research is starting to uncover a wide range of probable benefits to playing games, and claims of the “harm” potentially caused by gaming can be addressed with positive, empirically-supported facts like...
\#1 – Games help to improve reading in dyslexic children
There are plenty of games specifically designed to improve a wide range of issues, and you could easily create a game to reward and encourage improvements in reading ability for dyslexic children. Surprisingly, this isn’t even necessary to see improvements. One study showed that dyslexic children assigned to play an “action” (fast-paced) mini-game from “Rayman Raving Rabbids” showed improvements in reading afterwards in comparison to those playing a lower-tempo, “non-action” mini-game. The theory is that the fast-paced nature of the game encourages sustained attention, which is a skill directly applicable to reading.
\#2 – Some games improve cognitive flexibility
A 2013 British study added to the existing body of information on the cognitive benefits of playing games. The researchers compared two versions of “Starcraft” (along with a “Sims” group), with one emphasising the use of multiple sources of information and numerous sources of action more than the other, and the participants assigned to each game were given cognitive tests afterwards. They found that the group who played the more mentally-demanding version of the game showed greater “cognitive flexibility,” which is the ability to co-ordinate your brain function in dynamic and changing environments, handling the various pieces of information and taking action.
\#3 – First-person shooters can improve your eyesight
Another study looked at the effects of playing first-person shooter games on eyesight. Groups of experienced “action” gamers played the first-person shooters “Call of Duty 2” and “Unreal Tournament 2004” and the games’ effects on eyesight were compared with the changes seen in another group, who played “the Sims 2.” The researchers found that first-person shooters increase contrast sensitivity, an element of vision useful for things like reading and driving at night. The constant visual scanning for enemies – especially when they’re hard to see or may pop up unexpectedly – is assumed to be responsible for the effect.
\#4 – Gaming improves your mood
Several studies have demonstrated that emotional benefits to gaming: generally speaking, if you play a game you like, you’ll probably feel more positive afterwards. Simplistic puzzle games have been shown to be especially good for this purpose; “Angry Birds” is used as an example because it’s easy to play, accessible and doesn’t require a big commitment. Additionally, games have even been shown to help those with mental health problems (like stress and depression) by allowing them to vent frustration and relax in a state of “relative mindlessness.”
\#5 – Gaming improves decision-making
The improved cognitive flexibility conferred by gaming also translates into improved decision-making. Because games require fast decisions, gamers get better at making them. One study involved a small group of gamers (playing “action” games like Halo or Grand Theft Auto for five hours a week over the course of a year) pitted against a group of non-gamers on tests of both visual and auditory decision-making. Overall, the gamers were just as accurate in their answers but made the decisions significantly quicker.
\#6 – Games improve spatial skills
One of the most strongly-supported benefits of gaming is the improvement in the ability to mentally rotate objects and in the spatial resolution of vision. Researchers estimate that the improvements in spatial skills from gaming are comparable to the effects of school or university courses specifically designed for the purpose, and the skills are also picked up pretty quickly. This leads to a lasting improvement, and the benefits aren’t just confined to gaming.
\#7 – Playing Tetris can reduce cravings for food, alcohol and cigarettes
Research has shown that spending a few minutes playing Tetris (although similar games would assumedly also work) can actually reduce cravings by up to 24 percent. This occurs because the game basically serves as a distraction to prevent people from visualising the thing they crave, which in turn reduces the chance they’ll give in to temptation. It’s only a moderate effect, but it still could make the difference for some.
\#8 – Games foster pro-social “helping” behaviour
The stereotype of the isolated, socially-inept gamer is being turned on its head by the proliferation of social games, from simple in-browser Facebook-based affairs right through to MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. Playing pro-social games (those that reward co-operation and helping behaviours) makes your behaviour more sociable too, and long-term positive effects have been seen in children. This persists even with violent video games, because the important thing appears to be whether the game is played co-operatively rather than competitively. Even if you’re slaughtering virtual hoards of zombies, if you’re doing it with a friend it seems to make you do nicer things for people in general.
\#9 –Games help you regulate your emotions
That feeling of frustration you get when you’re stuck on a particular area or can’t come up with the right approach to beat a boss provides another key benefit of gaming: helping you deal with negative emotions through re-appraisal and adaptive regulation. The frustration builds up, but you’re in a safe situation (since you obviously know you’re only playing a game) and it enables you to practice controlling your emotions. You're trying to accomplish something whenever you’re playing a game, and this goal encourages you to push forward, reappraising situations and your approach as needed to succeed. This technique is a well-established emotional regulation strategy, and the benefit expected from games fits in with established theories of play.
\#10 – Games are likely to improve problem-solving ability
It makes sense that games would improve problem-solving, because the vast majority of games involve it in one form or another, often with little introduction or instruction beforehand. Researchers have argued that gaming leads to an experimental, trial-and-error approach to problem-solving, but this hasn’t been tested very much. One study showed a correlation between playing role-playing games (“World of Warcraft,” specifically) and improved problem-solving, but it was only a correlation, so it could be that problem-solvers gravitate towards that sort of game. Another, long-term study found the same basic effect, on both self-reported problem solving skills and performance in exams. Despite the limited evidence, it’s expected that there will be notable benefits to problem solving ability in gamers.
\#11 – Playing games may enhance creativity in children
Researchers used a sample of 500 kids (aged 12) to investigate the association between both violent and non-violent games and creativity. They found that playing both types of games were positively associated with creativity, but the only issue with the finding is that it’s impossible to say whether creative kids prefer games or games make kids more creative from this study alone. Still, the potential benefits of a game like Minecraft on creativity are abundantly clear, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if the finding was supported by future research.
\#12 – Gaming improves your motivation
Playing a game is often a process of repeated failures, and after you achieve success, you’re likely to presented with an even more difficult challenge. Games teach you that even if you fail, if you press ahead and try again, improving your skills on each attempt, you will eventually succeed and be rewarded. This is expected to establish an “incremental” theory of intelligence in gamers’ minds, meaning that they see intelligence as something that can be improved with enough effort and time invested, rather than something unchanging and innate. Failure becomes something positive because they know it will eventually lead to improvement and success, and studies have shown gamers are still interested, enjoying themselves and “relentlessly optimistic” in the face of failure. There haven’t been many specific studies on the real-world application of this assumed improvement, but one study shows that gamers are more likely to be persistent in their attempts to solve complex anagrams than non-gamers.
- Photo: Flickr: Joriel "Joz" Jimenez, via Compfight