Did you know that earlier this year the world’s largest organization of psychologists recognized video games can be good for you? In January 2014, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a paper outlining the benefits of playing video games. This paper, called “The Benefits of Video Games,” and authored by Granic, Lobel, and Engles, is part of a growing body of scientific literature investigating the benefits of gaming. This paper is exciting and validating for gamers, friends and families of gamers, and those conducting video game research. Since papers like this can be difficult for non-professionals to digest, I decided to explain the findings using terms and examples anyone can understand.
“The Benefits of Video Games” begins with some basic statistics about video games and the people who play them: 91% of children between 2 and 17 play video games; 94% of teenage girls and 99% of teenage of boys play video games. The paper then briefly review previous research on video games and health, most of which has focused on the negative associations between violence and aggression resulting from video game play.
Let’s begin by examining the paper’s four main domains where video games have been found to be beneficial: cognition, motivation, emotion, and socialization.
Cognition refers to the thinking part of the brain and other higher functions such as reasoning, attention, and memory. The authors review studies by Green & Bavalier and Uttal et al that found that playing video games, particularly shooter video games, rapidly developed and improved spatial skills. Spatial skills are considered a hallmark of intelligence, similar to verbal, reasoning, and memory abilities. Most standardized intelligence tests have a spatial abilities section. Spatial skills are what allow us to navigate using a map, pack up the car, and mentally rotate objects (think Tetris). These skills are used by scientists to visualize the universe and by doctors to interpret X-rays. The authors also point out that spatial skills are predictive of success in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Gamers who played shooters were also found to have greater attention allocation, meaning they were better able to focus on a task and filter out irrelevant information. You may have seen an example of this when you called your spouse or children for dinner and they simply did not hear you because they were gaming. Another example is when a person with ADHD who normally struggles to maintain attention is able to sit still and focused for long periods of time. Attention is like a muscle and it takes practice to improve.
In addition to spatial skills and attention, video games also help develop problem solving. Games like Portal are the pinnacle of problem solving, but almost all video games require some measure of problem solving. How do you navigate from one room to the next? How can you reach that shiny orb across the level? How do you piece together notes to work the Ocarina of Time? Furthermore, the authors cite a study that found gamers are more likely to learn through experimentation rather than in a linear fashion. What that means is that children who game tackle learning through trial and error, observing the results of their efforts and then trying something new. This is a much more creative and resilience-enhancing learning strategy than traditional linear learning (i.e., reading the manual).
The authors dig into motivational theory and reflect on how video games fit within those theories. For example, one aspect of motivation is being right on the edge of your ability, being challenged but not overwhelmed. Video games provide immediate and concrete feedback so players always know exactly what is expected of them, are rewarded for their efforts, and are not embarrassed or discouraged by their failures. Video games do not present impossible situations and are designed to gradually increase in difficulty. This helps players learn persistence and determination (i.e., if they just keep trying they will eventually win). When failure is seen as just part of the experience, it ceases to be scary and becomes a learning opportunity. In short, video games foster a healthy motivational style that is persistent and optimistic. The authors suggest that this motivational style can be transferred to other areas of life, such as school work or job performance.
Video games can evoke strong emotions related to accomplishment, persistence, and the overcoming of obstacles, and those who play video games often feel that there is little more exciting, reinforcing, and pride-inducing than defeating that final boss. Gamers may refer to beating the boss as an as an epic win; psychologists call it a fiero moment.
The authors explain how short, puzzle-based games like Bejeweled and Angry Birds generate positive feelings in numerous brief intervals. Video games also frequently transport players into a state of flow. A flow experience occurs when players are immersed in an activity they find intrinsically rewarding. In other words, rewards are internal (good feelings, pride, happiness) rather than external (money, praise); players feel a high level of control, and they might have the sense of losing themselves or become less self-conscious. Think about a time you were doing something you loved to do and you became so immersed that the hours seemed to slip away. This is flow, and video games are very, very good at triggering it. This is important because research supports the relationship between entering flow states and higher self-esteem, less anxiety, and overall positive outcomes.
Another way in which video games are emotionally beneficial is that, like traditional play, video games allow for the exploration of feelings and practice managing strong emotions. Video games can evoke feelings of intense happiness and joy as well as frustration and anger. Video games foster reappraisal, an emotion-regulation strategy where people evaluate and reevaluate a situation and their ability to cope with it. Think of having to clean a messy room or tackle a difficult math problem. A frequent thought may be “I can’t do this; this is too hard.” Reappraisal would help shift this thinking by breaking down the situation (starting with only a small part of the room rather than trying to clean the whole room) or by focusing on coping skills (taking a break, taking a deep breath, switching to positive thoughts, asking for help). Because video games present novel challenges and players frequently must adapt to new roles, new rules, and new strategies, the strategy of reappraisal is quite helpful. After all, if you saw a difficult puzzle and stuck with the “I can’t do it” mantra, you probably would not still be gaming.
The authors do give a word of caution. Research into the area of video games and emotional regulation is very new and much of the findings are speculative.
The cliché video game player is a young man who lives in his parents’ basement, isolated from everyone. However, this stereotype does not reflect reality. The authors point out that 70% of gamers play with a friend and, with millions of gamers online playing and interacting, social skills such as trust and leadership are all but required. Research has found that the context of the game is more important than the content of the game in predicting social responses. For example, the authors cite a study wherein a violent video game was played either cooperatively or competitively. Players who were in the cooperative group demonstrated pro-social and helping behaviors, despite playing a violent game. However, as in the area of emotion and gaming, there is limited information available about how games impact socialization. Still, much of the current research is supporting the notion that it is not the game that influences socialization, but how it is played (i.e., cooperative vs. competitive). The authors emphasize more research is needed in this area.