Search online and you’ll find no shortage of articles and scholarly studies espousing the negative impact of video games on children and adults. These reasons can range from harmful physiological effects, such as dehydration or muscle loss, to rare cases where players confuse the real world with the game world, resulting in potentially dangerous social encounters. However, these articles have often used extreme examples of unsupervised relationships with gaming and almost always depict rare cases of video game addiction.
More recently, the scientific community has begun to explore the numerous positive benefits that playing video games can provide for both kids and grown-ups. In part, due to the tearing down of stigmas related to gaming (e.g., “games make you lazy” or “games make you violent”) and a deeper understanding of what addiction actually means, psychologists and researchers have identified a trove of beneficial features associated with healthy gaming that many of us in the gaming community have experienced firsthand for decades.
In this two-part series, we’ll explore the natural dividends and impact of video games on social, mental and even physical development in children and how families can work with their children to find a healthy balance in life and gaming.
Video games, at their core, are designed to entertain us and provide fun and enjoyment. In other words, video games are about play. For children and adults, play is a crucial element to our mental well-being, by strengthening our creativity and overall happiness. When we engage in play, we exercise the pleasure centers of our brain and feel a surge of joy. Likewise, when kids (and adults, too) go too long without play, our stress levels increase and our feelings of safety and security are diminished.
A study in the Games for Health Journal showed that a prescription of casual video game play three times a week for 30 minutes found “significant decreases in depression symptoms” within their study group. This is because play helps us to manage our feelings by giving us tangible techniques to shift from a negative mood to a positive one, i.e., stress management. For this reason, video games have increasingly been used in therapeutic practices for over a decade to help alleviate depression and anxiety.
While some games are a single-player experience, there are many games out there that bring players together in an online setting. Whether these games are farm simulators or battle royale shooters, players can develop an active, shared experience with other players anywhere in the world. This socialization, in itself, is helpful in staving off feelings of depression and high levels of stress. Engaging in a shared experience with others has been shown to increase self-esteem and a sense of belonging as well as decrease feelings of anxiety and isolation (Jolly, 2019).
Online play has also paved the way for kids and adults who struggle to socialize IRL (In Real Life) to make new friends and practice their social skills. The struggles to communicate and the crippling anxiety of not knowing how to act face-to-face melt away when we engage in friendly competition, thus allowing social connections to start flowing more easily. This is why entire communities can develop around video games, providing virtual safe spaces for players to explore and develop their relationship skills
By “unintentional,” we are referring to skills, knowledge and techniques that playing video games instill in players which go beyond the intended effects of the game. For example, studies have shown that an unintended impact of video games has led to increased creative thinking, problem solving, adaptability and resourcefulness and leadership skills in players. Dr. Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist and research director of Take This, says video games can “induce a state of flow,” meaning “players become hyper focused on the in-game task and are determined to overcome it because their skills are being challenged. It is in this state that various kinds of learning can occur.”
It likely comes as no surprise that gamers consistently display better problem solving and creative thinking skills, as most games are designed to challenge players through overcoming obstacles and solving puzzles. In a study with 12-year-old gamers, they all scored high levels of creativity and curiosity when it came to drawing, telling stories, asking questions and making predictions. Another long-term study published in 2013 found that kids who played strategy-based games showed an increase in their problem-solving skills, leading to consistently higher grades in school as compared to their non-gaming peers.
Since most video games are played with a controller, they can help develop advanced hand-to-eye coordination and muscle memory to more efficiently perform complex tasks. In a study involving a group of surgeons, researchers found that those who played video games were faster at performing advanced procedures and made 37% fewer mistakes than those who didn’t. Additionally, games that take place in a virtual 3D world have shown to increase a player’s visual-spatial skills, helping them to better navigate real-world environments. And with the growth of VR (virtual reality) games and mobile games that require players to travel or visit new destinations, video games have even more power to encourage physical activity.
Research into the positive impact of video games is still in the early days, but independent studies across the world have already found similar trends in their results. This isn’t to say that video games pose zero risk to a child’s physical health or mental well-being, but rather that the conversation around video games is more nuanced. As with all things, moderation and balance are crucial to success. In part two of this article, we’ll explore parent tips and expert guidance on establishing a healthy relationship with gaming so you and your child can make the most out of their playful pastime.