Video games can often be a subject of controversy in psychology.
One of the biggest criticisms against video games is the idea that they can desensitize people (especially children) to violence, and thus lead to more aggressive and antisocial behavior in the real world. For example, in one recent study it was shown that playing violent video games, rather than non-violent ones, reduced the brain’s response to violence and aggression.
While I do believe this is a cause for concern, I also believe it’s something that really comes down to the right kind of parenting and attitude about video games. This means not allowing really young children access to games that are clearly for “mature audiences,” and also explaining to children the important difference between fiction and reality.
However, this article will focus on something completely different that is often overlooked in psychology: the scientifically proven benefits of video games.
I’ve already written about the benefits of music. It’s always interested me the different ways culture and technology influence our minds, so I’ve also been wanting to write an article on video games for a long time now.
Here are interesting examples of some of the psychology research that has come out recently on the benefits of video games.
Video games can improve problem-solving
One benefit to playing video games is an improvement in problem-solving and critical-thinking.
For example, in one recent study it was found that real-time strategy games can improve overall “cognitive flexibility” – which was measured using a variety of non-video game related tasks.
Strategy and puzzle-based games are especially good types of games for improving problem-solving, but almost every video game requires some type of planning and innovative thinking to move on to the next level.
Video games can be a great way to test your brain and learn to overcome different problems and obstacles. Try to find video games that match your level of difficulty – games that you are relatively good at, but still challenge you too.
Another study shows how video games can sometimes lead to frustration, so it’s important not to take games too seriously and not be too hard on yourself if you get to a point in a game that you can’t get passed.
Games can be challenging, but keep in mind they are meant to be fun too – so don’t take any game too seriously, it’s not worth the holes in the wall!
Video games can improve motor skills and spatial awareness
Another benefit to video games is that they can improve motor skills and spatial awareness.
In a study done using Super Mario 64, individuals who played the game 30 minutes a day for 2 months showed changes in parts of their brain associated with spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory and motor performance.
First-person shooters, platformers, and driving games are particularly useful for improving hand-eye coordination.
A related study shows the power of video games to improve our attention and speed up our response times – two very important skills for interacting with the real world in fast-paced situations.
Reality is Broken is an insightful book by game designer and activist Jane McGonigal that teaches us how viewing our world more like a video game can help us solve real world problems.
Video games can help you socialize and build relationships
Another positive thing about video games is that they often give us an opportunity to socialize and build relationships.
According to a recent study, many gamers play with their friends or even make friends online. Multi-player video games often provide a way to compete against others in a healthy and fun way, or even cooperate and work together in a group or team to overcome common obstacles.
While some may think “online relationships” aren’t as real or valid as “real world relationships,” the truth is that a lot of people find a lot of value in their online relationships and it helps give people a sense of community and belonging that they may not otherwise get anywhere else.
The idea that we can play games with people from all around the world is remarkable in itself. And I know from personal experience that video games have introduced me to all types of people that I’d probably never connect with in the “real world.”
Video games can improve self-control and help you curb desires
One really interesting study found that playing Tetris can help reduce urges to eat, drink, or smoke.
When individuals distract themselves with a video game, this can help reduce the strength of their urges and cravings. Instead of thinking, “I really want to smoke a cigarette right now” or “I really want to eat a piece of cake,” you become so involved in playing the game and achieving those goals.
I’ve written before about healthy escapism and how sometimes distracting ourselves can be a useful tool in emotional intelligence. This is just one more example of that in the form of video games.
The next time you want to binge eat, drink, or smoke, try playing a video game instead and it will help you minimize the craving and improve your sense of self-control.
If you check out Jane McGonigal’s TED talk, she actually explains how the origin of games was used to help overcome a famine and food shortage. Individuals would only eat every other day, and the other day they would distract themselves by playing games.
Video games can reduce stress and pain
One of the last benefits of video games is that they help reduce stress and pain.
This is probably one of the most common uses of video games in our society. We come home from a long day at school or work, and we relax and unwind by playing a video game.
A recent study (PDF) definitely supports the idea that video games can decrease stress and improve our overall mood. And another study shows how video games are used to help distract medical patients from pain.
Again, this goes back to the idea of “healthy escapism.” Video games allow us to temporarily escape our world of stresses and anxieties, and put ourselves in an alternate world where we often feel much more powerful and in control.
While we certainly don’t want to get completely lost in video games to the point where we ignore our real world responsibilities, perhaps taking a vacation every now and then can be very beneficial to our mental health and well-being.
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