I’ve already written about the 5 reasons I’m buying my kids a Wii U this holiday season. In a way, this post offers 4 more reasons, emphasizing some of the positive impact that comes from gaming. As you’ll read below, I have some reservations about the paper, but I also think there’s a lot of good information in it.
The research paper, by Isabela Granic, Adam Lobel, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels, entitled “The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” attempts to balance out the kinds of research that has been undertaken around gaming. The authors write:
Decades of valuable research on the effects of violent video games on children’s and adolescents’ aggressive behavior already exists, and this is indeed an important body of work to consider. However, we argue that in order to understand the impact of video games on children’s and adolescents’ development, a more balanced perspective is needed, one that considers not only the possible negative effects but also the beneﬁts of playing these games.
They summarize research on the positive impact of gaming in the following areas: cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social. Here, I summarize their summary.
I feel compelled to mention that I do have a number of questions about the validity of the general concept of “psychological health.” The criteria with which we assess one’s psychological well-being seem, to me, inescapably political in nature. That is, I believe we should seriously question what agenda underlies any attempt at identifying an “ideal” image of health. Healthy for what? Often, we are defining what it means to be healthy enough to participate in an inherently unhealthy system. Consider that myriad authors have pointed out that many of our most ‘successful’ citizens, our most famous CEOs in particular, display sociopathic tendencies.
Still, despite the many objections to their diagnostic practices, the American Psychological Association does hold the predominantly accepted definition of mental health, the definition of the ‘ideal’ psychological comportment for our current society. Since we don’t have the space here to question that ‘ideal’ in depth, we’ll have to take it at face value. Therefore, I present this particular research with reservations about its underlying assumptions, but enthusiasm about its findings.
Here are 4 ways video game play may benefit adolescents overall psychological health.
1. The Cognitive Benefits of First Person Shooters
In controlled tests, folks who played first person shooters showed “faster and more accurate attention allocation, higher spatial resolution in visual processing, and enhanced mental rotation abilities.” Apparently, the improvement in spacial skills that gamers develop are comparable to those developed in formal courses designed to teach the same skills.
In addition, “Preliminary research has also demonstrated that these cognitive advantages manifest in measurable changes in neural processing and efﬁciency.” Which, best I can tell, means that gamers use their neural resources more efficiently–their brains don’t show as much activity as non-gamer’s brains show while solving problems.
Finally, there seems to be convincing evidence that playing games enhances problem-solving skills and improves creativity. “Among a sample of almost 500 12-year-old students, video game playing was positively associated with creativity.” The same results were not true when kids interacted with other kinds of technology.
Sure, most of us were already skeptical of the illogical inclination to scapegoat violent games, this paper validates our position. The author’s write, “these data suggest that agendas to ban shooter games may be too simplistic.”
I still don’t let my kids play first-person shooters, but I don’t have a simple explanation for why. For now, it is just my intuition that tells me it is not in their best interest.
2. Call It Motivation Not Addiction
The idea here is that through persistent engagement, young people develop a sense of identity, “beliefs about their intelligence and abilities,” that can have long-term impact on their proclivity for success.
The work of Carol Dweck makes a distinction between an entity theory of intelligence and an incremental theory of intelligence. When kids develop an entity theory of intelligence, they believe they have innate, fixed traits. They are praised for being so smart, or being good at math, etc. It has a negative impact on long term attitudes. When kids develop an incremental theory of intelligence, on the other hand, they understand that they have certain skills. They are praised for their effort: “you worked so hard on that problem, you solved that puzzle.”
Video games, the authors argue, help kids to develop an incremental theory of intelligence. “Immediate and concrete feedback in video games (e.g., through points, coins, dead ends in puzzles) serves to reward continual effort,” keeping players in a “motivational ‘sweet spot’” that “balances optimal levels of challenge and frustration with sufficient experiences of success and accomplishment.”
As my two sons and I slowly learn to beat each level of New Super Mario Brothers U by failing and trying again, we are all reinforcing positive motivational attitudes.
3. Control Your Emotions
“Gaming may be among the most efﬁcient and effective means by which children and youth generate positive feelings.”
If you follow me on Forbes, you know that I regularly write about game based learning. One of the strongest arguments for game based learning is that games allow us to build simulations of complex systems. Players get to situate themselves within the system and practice navigating the particular challenges of that system.
In a broader way, by creating realistic enough simulations that elicit strong emotional responses (both positive and negative), commercial games provide players with an opportunity to try and regulate their emotions. Players feel that “the accomplishment of goals matters” and also know that because they’re controlling the Mario avatar with the Wii U controller, rather than throwing real fireballs, the space is “safe enough to practice controlling, or modulating, negative emotions in service of” the game’s goals.
The authors write, “Adaptive regulation strategies such as acceptance, problem solving, and reappraisal have repeatedly been linked to less negative affect, more social support, and lower levels of depressive symptoms.”
4. How To Be A Social Butterfly
“Contrary to stereotypes, the average gamer is not a socially isolated, inept nerd.” So many of today’s games are multiplayer games that require interacting with other players. According to this paper, “over 70% of gamers play their games with a friend, either cooperatively or competitively.”
My son spends hours on Minecraft servers, making friends, asking what he needs to do to become a member, etc. I’ve written in detail about the benefits of the cooperative multiplayer mode that many of the new generation of Nintendo games include. I play the Mario games in coop mode with my 8 year old and my 6 year old constantly. I’ve explained in other places why I think playing video games with my kids makes me a better dad.
According to the authors, playing games leads to prosocial “helping” behaviors. Two recent studies have shown that playing games leads to cooperative behaviors outside of the gaming context. Apparently, “even the most violent video games on the market (Grand Theft Auto IV, Call of Duty) fail to diminish subsequent prosocial behavior.”