“The game of Chess is not merely an idle amusement. Several very valuable qualities of the mind, useful in the course of human life, are to be acquired or strengthened by it, so as to become habits, ready on all occasions . . . we learn by Chess the habit of not being discouraged by present bad appearances in the state of our affairs, the habit of hoping for a favourable change, and that of persevering in the search of resources.” – Benjamin Franklin, “The Morals of Chess”
There is a well-established field of research examining the benefits of play, particularly for children, in the pursuit of learning and self-expression. However, the idea that playing video games is an activity that provides benefits for growth, health, wellbeing, and helps to satisfy basic psychological needs for all age groups, is still an emerging field of research. Over the last 10 years, there is a consistently growing body of evidence that video games can provide a vast range of benefits for players. Players of all age groups are also becoming aware of these benefits.
This years’ Digital Australia Report (Brand & Todhunter, 2015), found that 89% believe that video games can improve thinking, 26% of over 50’s play video games to keep their mind active, and 35% of children have played games as part of their school curriculum. With 98% of Australian households with children now playing video games for an average of 88 minutes every day, the adoption of video game play has grown considerably in the last 10 years.
So given this mass adoption of constantly evolving interactive technology, we must ask, what is going on here? Are people escaping their realities? Or are they enhancing it? Let’s take a look at a recent study to examine the benefits of playing video games. Granic and colleagues (Granic, Lobel, & Engels, 2014) outline the evidence for four domains of functioning that are enhanced by video game play.
Cognitive benefits of gaming
Remember the wealth of early research about the dangers of violent video game content? Research has suggested that these very same types of games (Halo 4, Grand Theft Auto IV, and many other FPS games) provide statistically significant cognitive benefits for players. Specific benefits include “faster and more accurate attention allocation, higher spatial resolution in visual processing, and enhanced mental rotation abilities.” Furthermore, enhancement of these cognitive skills via playing shooters is comparable to gains developed during university level (non video game related) courses aimed at developing these skills.
These changes in neural functioning whilst playing video games have been shown to generalise to real life contexts. Other cognitive benefits of video games include enhanced problem solving skills, and enhanced creativity. Because of these real world cognitive benefits, the exciting part of all of this research is what this skill development means in turn for education and career development, given that spatial skills are a critical component of achievement in STEM fields. So playing your favourite video game is not only fun, but it may also be training your brain for future success.
Motivational benefits of gaming
According to research, we develop strong beliefs about our skills and abilities as children. These beliefs are developed throughout our lifetimes in accordance with our experiences, and our ability to overcome the challenges that we encounter. When we play video games, we are engaging with a medium that has been specifically developed to engage us at incrementally increasing levels of difficulty. Video games are perfectly designed at providing us with challenges and puzzles that we can solve through effort and time using our constantly growing skill set. Furthermore, video games provide us with a perfect feedback mechanism to promote continued challenge accomplishment.
In terms of real life application of this motivational hotbed, studies have shown that persistence in video games, and the overcoming of increasingly difficult challenges do correlate with real life measures of persistence, optimism and problem solving. So next time you find yourself going in for that boss fight yet again, remind yourself how motivated and persistent you are, not just in game, but in real life too.
Emotional benefits of gaming
One of the most powerfully validated theories in communications research is the idea that individuals engage in media use to manage and enhance their emotional state. Video Game research has certainly corroborated these findings with a large wealth of studies showing that play results in improved mood and increases in positive emotion.
Different game genres have been shown to have different effects. For example, puzzle and mobile games have been shown to result in improvement of mood, promotion of relaxation and decreases in anxiety. There is new research suggesting that role playing games allow players to enhance their emotion regulation ability, which teaches players to more fluidly adapt to changing emotional states and deal with frustration and anxiety in better ways.
Many research studies link the psychological state of flow with video game play. This state allows players to become immersed in the continued challenge of play whilst suspending conscious awareness of outside factors (such as time passing). It has been shown to promote a wide range of positive benefits, including commitment and achievement in academic activities, higher self esteem and decreases in anxiety. So if you feel like you’ve lost a couple of hours in deep puzzle worlds, just go with the flow, and notice what is probably a newfound state of relaxation.
Social benefits of gaming
In complete contrast to the rapidly fading stereotypical ‘gamer’ being a young adult male who sits alone on a couch playing video games for hours and days on end; today’s gamers are from all age groups, and largely engage in gaming in social contexts. Studies show that players engaging in co-op multiplayer environments actively enhance pro social skills as a result of in game practice of cooperation, support and helping behaviours. These in game skills have been shown to translate to real world environments. This is in contrast to exclusively competitive multiplayer environments.
It isn’t just games with pro-social themes either. New research has shown that even in violent / active / shooter style games, that co-op styles of multiplayer gaming have led to real world improvements in pro-social behaviour. There are further studies needed, particularly longitudinal studies, in order to determine long term social outcomes of cooperative gameplay. But the evidence at this stage certainly suggests that it is the skill development, rather than the context and content of gameplay, which results in positive social outcomes.
Other research has also found strong links between multiplayer gaming in role playing genres, and civic engagement, leadership and helping behaviours. Given that these studies are largely correlational, further studies are needed to determine whether gameplay directly results in these pro-social skills.
Perhaps next time you are playing Overwatch with your friends, you can reflect on what a great job you are doing by combining all your unique skills to overcome obstacles together.
As with all research, there are often more questions raised than answered, and certainly with new game developments and the emergence of new technologies, there is a never-ending list of studies yet to be done. What we do have right now, is a great deal of evidence to suggest that playing video games can be beneficial for you cognitively, it can enhance your motivation, help you emotionally, and enhance your social connectivity and pro-social behaviour. So let’s all pick up our controllers and connect!
Brand, J. E., & Todhunter, S. (2015). Digital Australia 2016. Eveleigh, NSW: IGEA.
Granic, I., Lobel, A., & Engels, R. C. M. E. (2014). The benefits of playing video games. The American Psychologist, 69(1), 66-78. doi:10.1037/a0034857