In the United States alone, an estimated 99 percent of boys and 94 percent of girls play video games with 97 percent playing at least one hour per day. The revenue from the video game industry topped $25 billion dollars in 2010 alone (compared to Hollywood’s box office sales of $10.8 billion for the U.S. and Canada) and video games have become an important part of popular culture.
Media stories continue to warn about the potential dangers of video game playing, including potential addiction, violent behaviour, and depression, usually in the aftermath of a violent incident linked to video game use (such as the revelation that Sandy Hook Elementary School gunman, Adam Lanza, regularly played shooter games). After decades of research into the negative effects of video games, the results remain controversial despite a rise in treatment programs intended to wean young people off excessive video game use.
But is video game playing necessarily harmful? A new review article published in American Psychologist suggests that we need to look at the positive aspects of video game play, as well as the negative. According to Isabela Granic and her fellow researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands, media stories relating to the video game phenomenon largely ignore how video games have changed in recent years to become more complex, realistic, and social in nature. Research in the last five years has documented the benefits experienced by children and adolescents playing these new, interactive games. The Dutch researchers suggest that not only do the newer video games provide young people with compelling social, cognitive, and emotional experiences, they also can potentially boost mental health and well-being.
Research into developmental and evolutionary psychology has long underscored the positive benefits of play, especially as children grow and develop. Not only do social games allow children to test out different social scenarios, they can learn how to handle the kinds of conflicts they might face in the real world. This allows children to develop social experiences that can be valuable as they mature. Themes such as power and dominance, aggression, pain, and separation can be rehearsed under non-threatening conditions. This allows children to learn to cooperate and accept their peers.
More recently, brain researchers examining play fighting in rats have found that play fighting releases chemical growth factors in regions of the brain coordinated for social activiities. This includes the orbital frontal complex which becomes stimulated and more developed as a result. Since there are strong similarites between some forms of human and animal play, Granic and her colleagues suggest that play can provide the same sort of brain stimulation in human children as well.
Although there is no question that ordinary play can provide a wide range of benefits for young people, does the sort of play allowed by interactive video games produce the same benefits? Again, Isabela Granic and her co-researchers argue that it does. Not only do video games allow players to interact with the game systems in a way that would not be possible for more passive forms of entertainment such as movies or television, but they can be played either alone, with others, or in competition with thousands of other online players. Video games can also be played on dedicated systems such as Playstation or Nintendo Wii, personal or tablet computers, and even cell phones.
Among some of the most popular games played online today is World of Warcraft allowing more than twelve million players to customize their own gaming experience, battle human or computer opponents, and explore complex virtual worlds. Minecraft has millions of players using simple elements to construct complicated structures and mechanisms to be shared online and to create enormous virtual landscapes. In The Sims 3, players can create virtual realities where simulated characters can interact with other characters online to learn new skills, work and play in dedicated environments, and form complex relationships. Given the thousands of other interactive game systems available to players, it is hardly surprising that the wide range of gaming experiences has spawned a gamer culture with virtual and non-virtual gaming communities around the world and distinctions among casual, “core”, “hard-core”, and even pro gamers earning some or all of their income from gaming in serious competitions.
As for the actual benefits that come from playing video games, Isabela Granic and her co-authors provide a comprehensive review of the research literature showing that video games can develop skills in the following areas:
Cognitive development – Research into action games show enhanced mental rotation abilities, faster and more accurate attention allocation, higher spatial resolution in visual processing. Meta-analysis studies showed that spatial skills can be learned in a relatively brief time by playing video games and that the results are often comparable to training in formal courses designed to enhance those same skills. Cognitive advantages from video games also appear to produce greater neural processing and efficiency, improve attention functioning, and help with pattern recognition. The best results appear to come from “shooter” video games as opposed to puzzle-solving or role-playing games though modern games tend to be too complex to make easy conclusions about the kind of cognitive benefits they can produce.
Open-ended video games and other interactive media available online allow young people to improve problem-solving skills by learning to solve puzzles through trial-and-error. Interactive games also appear to improve creativity as well. Although it is still not clear how well the skills learned from video games generalize to real-world situations, early research results seem promising.
Motivation – By setting specific tasks and allowing young people to work through obstacles to achieve those tasks, video games can help boost self-esteem and help children learn the value of persistence. By providing immediate feedback as video game players solve problems and achieve greater expertise, players can learn to see themselves as having skills and intelligence they might not otherwise realize they possess. Gaming helps young people realize that intelligence is incremental, i.e., something that can increase with time and effort rather than being fixed. Immediate feedback also keeps players in the “zone of proximal development” which allows them to solve problems on their own while working towards specific goals. Since difficulty level rises as players advance, the skills they gain from gaming continue to improve with time. Games also provide intermittent reinforcement to encourage players not to give up despite growing challenges.
Again, there is little evidence showing that the motivational benefits from playing video games necessarily carries over into the real world. Still, many of the problem-solving skills learned in games can be applied to real-life problems. The motivational benefits from video games likely varies depending on the personality and individual circumstances of the player.
Emotion – For most gamers, video games are played for enjoyment and to help improve their mood. Along with distracting them from real-world problems (a special concern for young people looking for escape from bullying or other negative life situations), succeeding in video games can lead to positive feelings, reduced anxiety, and becoming more relaxed. Many gamers report intense emotions of pride and achievement by immersing themselves in games that allow a high sense of control that “takes them out of themselves.” According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the concept of flow refers to the mental state often reported by gamers during which they are performing an activity that leaves them fully immersed without feeling self-conscious. Flow experiences have been linked to positive outcomes such as greater self-esteem and a sense of achievement that can translate to greater mental health benefits though this has not been directly tested in video game research.
The positive emotions that can result from becoming immersed in video games on a regular basis may also increase awareness and encourage a more novel outlook on life. According to psychologist Barbara Frederickson who first proposed a broaden and build theory of positive emotions, experiencing positive emotions can help broaden the number of behaviours seen as desirable and build social relationships that provide support for achieving goals and coping with failure. Frederickson also suggests that positive emotions can counteract the effects of negative emotions which decrease motivation. While it is still not clear whether video games produce the sort of positive emotions that can lead to the sort of broadening and building to which Frederickson referred to in her research, many gamers report emotional benefits they perceive as important to them.
Social – Perhaps more than ever before, video games have become an intensely social activity. Instead of the stereotypical gaming nerd who uses video games to shun social contact, over 70 percent of gamers play with friends, whether as part of a team or in direct competition. Games such as World of Warcraft and Farmville boast millions of users, with online social communities and regular interactions with fellow gamers. Social and prosocial activities are an intrinsic part of the gaming experience with gamers rapidly learning social skills that could generalize to social relationships in the real world.
Though many games have a violent content, they still provide players with an opportunity to learn social skills by focusing on cooperation with team members. Research has shown that playing violent video games in groups reduces feelings of hostility better than playing such games alone. More research is definitely needed, but there seems to be a strong potential value of cooperative play in developing social behaviour and curbing antisocial thoughts and behaviours.
Although video games are largely seen as pure entertainment, their popularity has inspired new initiatives to “gamify” medical interventions to motivate patients and keep them informed about treatment options. One particular success story involves the Re-Mission video games, designed for young cancer patients. Conceived by Pam Omidyar and developed by the HopeLab Foundation, the shooter game allows players to control a nanobot injected into the human body to shoot cancer cells and monitor patient health. Children playing the game learn about their own illness, side-effects of cancer treatment, and the importance of treatment adherence. Research studies have already demonstrated that patients playing Re-Mission become better educated about cancer and develop greater treatment self-efficacy. Already played by more than 200,000 patients, Re-Mission is widely recognized as a valuable tool for cancer treatment.
Countless video games have already been developed for a wide range of different academic subjects, including everything from foreign languages, history, geography, science, and mathematics. Research into the teaching value of these games already suggests that educational video games may well represent a new way of teaching that could help meet the challenges faced by educators in the coming decades. Still, relatively few of these educational video games have ever been formally studied by researchers so the question of quality control remains important. There is always a tradeoff between making games fun as well as educational and most of the games developed so far tend to have relatively limited appeal.
Despite the potential value of video games, much of the media coverage up to now has been negative, particularly due to concerns about potential video game addiction and their violent content. As Isabela Granic and her colleagues point out, attaching labels such as “good”, “bad”, “violent”, or “prosocial” largely overlooks the complex picture surrounding the new generation of video games now available. Players are drawn to the video games they prefer and the benefits or drawbacks to how they interact with these games is largely shaped by their motivation for playing.
Future research needs to concentrate on both the positive and negative aspect of video game playing to get a better understanding of the influence games can have on social, cognitive, and motivational functioning. That also includes understanding how games can affect young people at different stages in their development. Though the current game rating system developed by the video game industry supposedly carries warning labels describing some games as being inappropriate for anyone under certain ages, there is no research to back up the actual value of this.
All that can be said for certain at this point is that video games seem here to stay and their impact, both good and bad, are just beginning to be understood. Along with addressing the very real problems of video game addiction and media violence, the potential value of using video games for educational and medical applications, among other things, will be challenges that need to be faced.