With 97% of the youth of the United States gaming on a daily basis, it is important to look at what effects video games can have on the brain and its development. Until recently, video games were culturally derided: they are nothing more than time sinks, they promote violence, they cause depression and can be addictive. Any fan of video games knows these views to be incredibly short-sighted and one sided, but as time progresses society as a whole is acclimating to games as, at least in part, a positive force. We looked at gaming as it relates to seniors last month, and the benefits of gaming among that age group. Research is showing that games are beneficial to just about everyone.
An old perception of gaming is that it is shameful and occurs in isolation, but in the last decade gaming has become incredibly social. Over 70% of gamers play with friends (either cooperatively or competitively). In the more complex socially oriented games like MMOs require similar social interactions as in real life: whom to accept, who will lead, how the groups and teams will work and function together. These types of games, in fact, call for such complicated real world social interactions that the skills learned there can help some gamers with their ability to engage with their own real life social groups. It even bears out that children who played more prosocial games were more likely to exhibit helpful behaviors in school throughout the year. Moreover, when you read a word like “prosocial” you may be tempted to conclude that games with violence are exempt from this kind of benefit, but studies are bearing out as the opposite, suggesting that violent video games with a social aspect are just as likely to produce positive results in disposition and real world interaction. And combined with the fact that playing video games (even with violence) seems to help combat aggressive tendencies, it’s easy to see how socially beneficial video games can be.
There are also many people less mobile than the median average, people we tend to forget in conversations like this. The disabled and the convalesced (either temporarily or permanently) often use video games as one of their primary social engagements. And it’s easy to see why—with common goals and reward for accomplishment, video games provide an incredibly stimulating environment from those for one reason or another more confined to their own houses. Social gaming in those situations become even more important.
A lot of adults today look back fondly on our gaming days as children (especially if we are still gamers today) as one of the only avenues of positive reinforcement in their lives. Anyone that was the product of a household of tumult or neglect could be greatly boosted by beating a game and having an encouraging title screen come up for their accomplishment: “You did it!” “You’re the best!” “You are a winner!” For a kid in the 80s, seeing those hard earned, sincerely given messages were moving and empowering. Research has backed this up, finding that gaming may be among the most efficient and effective ways for minors to generate positive feelings. Puzzle games in particular can improve moods, help with relaxation and abate anxiety.
Anxiety, frustration, anger, and grief are powerful emotions that are hard to combat, and it is hard to understate how profound an effect video games can have in coping with these states. Games allow for an immersion that is impossible to really find elsewhere, and that immersion itself provides an emotional reward that can help minimize those negative feelings. These experiences have been linked to a lot of positive results, including improvement in school and job performance.
Most of us forget how important is to experience positivity on a daily basis, because most of us can. If that kind of emotional state is hard to achieve in a certain life, or with a certain chemical makeup, video games can help vault past a lot the noise and achieve that state of feedback that is the bedrock for wellbeing. There have been times in my life where the positivity I have received through media (specifically video games) was all I was going to get for that day, and I have discussed in previous posts how video games saved my life while going through difficulties in my past.
It’s not just me: studies have shown that the pretend context of video games may be real enough to make the rewards of accomplishment just a real. In essence, those that either feel or simply are powerless are able to engage in the feeling of control and empowerment in a safe environment. Challenging games with dynamism in their complexity, with varied cognitive puzzles and problems, can create a reward that makes a player feel smart and accomplished—but this is a real, not a false feeling, as these games really can be hard to solve, and require a lot of effort. That empowerment can transfer away from video games and into the players real life, where they will be more confident and less anxious overall.
Games are brilliant in their construction in that they compel a player to engage more at the same time the game gets harder. Starting with lessons on how to play the game and triggering reward mechanisms that hook a player, a game designer can create levels or areas of a game that are fiendishly difficult, safe in the knowledge that their games provide an impressive amount of internal motivation. What is so interesting is how much external motivation games can also provide. Decades of research suggest that motivational styles “characterized by persistence and continuous effortful engagement” are instrumental on success and achievement. The term in quotes above describe most video games to a tee. You have to be persistent to progress in a video game, and most gamers are loath to back away from a challenge. More recent research has shown that these motivational skills are not only present in video games but help train developing minds to seek out and implement such persistence and continuous effort elsewhere in life.
Reward systems in video games (points, coins, secrets unlocked, etc.) serve to reward continual effort, and help keep players in a “zone of proximal development” as the game increases in difficulty. In essence, how tough a level is, and how rewarding it is, balance and adjust dynamically. Not only that, video games use “failure” as a motivational tool: with many games, it is almost a certainty you fail at first, as you learn the rules of the game (or the level) and how to interact with the environment. Persistence in the face of failure is one of the most crucial lessons needed for success in life; gamers react to failure with excitement, engagement, even joy. (Sure, too much failure at any one time can be discouraging, but luckily video games are designed to sit and wait patiently for you to cool down and come back.)
So, while gaming may be considered a time waster by many, gaming may cultivate immense positive motivational behavior, including persistence and motivation in the face of difficulty and adversity.
Physical and Cognitive Benefits
Playing video games can result in long-lasting positive effects in so many areas in development, both physically and mentally. This can include improved visual contrast sensitivity, as well as a successful treatment for amblyopia (lazy eye). Gaming can result in improved spatial attention (such as the ability to locate and target stimulus in a field of distractions) that can help with driving ability. Dyslexia, it has been found, can derive from problems of visual attention, and the focus video games provide can help overcome the condition. Games are also linked to the reduction of impulsiveness.
Executive functioning is also positively effected in video games. Gaming can help improve ability to engage in multitasking. There is a video game test called the Multi-Attribute Task Battery, which is modeled after the skills required to pilot aircraft. High scores on this test correlate with real-world piloting.
Games can also help with increased mental flexibility: not only does research show that experience with action and fast-paced gaming can improve people’s ability to switch rapidly and without error between tasks that have conflicting demands, but also improved memory, perception and attention to those tasks while doing so.