You're probably doubting me, especially given the hundreds of articles written about all the negative impacts video games have on us. While playing violent video games certainly has a correlation with aggression and Gaming Addiction has become an increasing concern in recent decades, we often neglect the positive effects video games can have on our mental health.
This is especially relevant right now as people across the globe are ordered to stay home to reduce the spread of Covid-19. We’re playing a lot more video games than before. Remember the dozens of Nintendo Switch scams on Facebook and Craigslist? Yeah, me too.
Is all this gaming going to cause problems when we come out of quarantine? Possibly, but it’s also possible we’ll see a lot of benefits. So let’s start the conversation about the many ways in which video games are actually improving our lives for the better.
Anxiety and Depression
In the last few months, I’ve noticed significant stress relief while playing Stardew Valley. If you don’t know about it, well you should definitely go buy a copy now (insert affiliate link I wish I had here).
For those of you who are unaware, Stardew Valley is a Role-Playing Game (RPG) that takes place in the countryside. You inherit your grandfather's farm and move there to grow vegetables and befriend the townsfolk. If you ever played Harvest Moon on the N64, then you’ll get the idea. While there were certainly a few regrettable late nights on my part, the benefits vastly exceeded the downsides.
Beyond my own anecdotal evidence, there’s plenty of psychological research that corroborates my own experience. Even playing those simple puzzle games on your smartphone can actually alleviate depression and anxiety. In one study, participants took a 5-minute break at work and either played a game called Sushi Cat or did nothing. The participants who played a game felt more positive and less stressed than those who didn’t.
These findings aren’t all that surprising, given how easy it is to zone out while matching colourful candies in groups of three. So now you can play Bejewel Blitz and Tetris a little less guiltily.
Problem Solving Skills
There is also some evidence of teens having better skills when it comes to problem-solving. In one study of adolescents, they saw that there was an increase in problem-solving skills when they played more RPGs.
This isn’t that surprising, given that RPGs involve solving elaborate scenarios and puzzles in a myriad of ways. Portal is a great example of this. In that game, you have a gun that allows you to create two doors that connect together to teleport. It has dozens of puzzles and they all start with that same premise.
Coping with Failure
Researchers have also suggested the video games teach kids better ways to accept failure. Dealing with failure is a key aspect of life, and if we can teach kids how to embrace and learn from failure at a young age that will help them immensely.
When trying repeatedly to do something unsuccessfully, like solving a puzzle in a Legend of Zelda Game, we are actually improving our Emotional Resilience. That’s just a fancy way of referring to our ability to cope in a crisis and engage in behaviour that reduces the effect stress has on us.
That’s right mom, those hours staring at the T.V. as I struggled to beat the final boss in Paper Mario were good for me! Now I’ve got great perseverance! Well, most days I do anyways.
It also turns out that the stereotypical depiction of an isolated gamer in their bedroom is not entirely accurate. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Gamers are extremely social. Even when they are shooting bullets at each other while they play Halo… weird I know but follow me here.
In this paper from Radboud University, they looked at a summary of the recent research and concluded that video games had positive effects on social skills. In one study from that article, a survey found that over 70% of gamers play with someone else. In another study published in Cyberpsychology, the researchers saw that games with prosocial behaviours predicted more cooperative behaviour. What I found especially interesting is that it doesn’t matter if the game is violent, it matters more so if the game rewards cooperative behaviour.
Another example of improved social skills that we have seen is higher civic engagement when people play games that were involved in more social and civic movements. Wait, young adults are more likely to volunteer and to vote if they play games like Civilization? Apparently yes! Now, that was only one study, so we don’t know the directional cause of the correlation, but it’s still an uplifting find.
Those more aggressive shooter games are also shown to have many impressive benefits on our cognition. Next time I play Borderlands, I’m telling my mom I’m exercising my brain, and I won’t be lying!
In one study, they found 3D video games improved our memory. It’s important to note here, that not all video games that do that, but ones that are detail-rich. The idea here is that the more there is in the environment for you to absorb, the more information you’re inputting into your brain. When playing a more interactive game, they saw that the hippocampus was more lit up. When your brain is active, then more synapses are firing and communicating with each other, so it makes sense that your memory would improve as a result.
Yet another cognitive benefit we are seeing is an improvement in spatial skills. In this meta-analysis, the research found that that first-person shooter games also improved spatial awareness. Navigating maps and virtual environments clearly affects our real-world abilities as well. In fact, I remember learning how to read a map when I was a kid while playing computer games way before I learned how to read a map at school.
All in all, your brain is working extra hard when it’s playing video games. As a result, we are seeing a lot of different improvements to our cognition.
That’s right, games make your kid more creative. Is it that shocking though? I love drawing games, from Telustrations to Tee-KO. In the last month, I’ve seen my drawing skills improve while hanging out with my friends and doodling away.
Of course, drawing more will improve your drawing skills. It also seems that video games improve the creative skills of kids. One study at Michigan State University found that children who played video were far more creative on other tasks. Those kids wrote more creative stories and made more creative art than kids who played fewer games.
So should we all run to our computers or gaming systems and play hours of video games? Well, no. Everything in moderation. Calm down, guys… You probably shouldn’t stay up until 3:00am trying to catch a sea cucumber with a fishing rod for your crush Harvey in Stardew Valley (he’s a nerdy doctor and I love him, okay?)
While it may seem like I’ve drowned you in research, there are still plenty of gaps for us to fill. Many of these studies need to be looked at over time to see the full picture. Replication is also important in order for us to strengthen the data. Still, in my opinion, and from personal experience, video games have a lot of benefits that we fail to recognize.
We may all be stuck at home, but that doesn’t mean we have to suffer. In fact, now is the perfect time to buy a new game and hang out in a virtual world until our real-world goes back to normal.
Now, excuse me, I have to go sheer my virtual sheep Creampuff.