Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment fellow gamers… our society doesn’t always hold our lifestyle in the highest of esteem. There are negative stereotypes about what kind of people we are, as well as how gaming impacts us as individuals. Often I overhear coworkers talk about those ‘darn video games’, and how they want their kids to have none of it. When I hear this I try and speak up about the benefits of gaming, as I know that I wouldn’t be the same person I am today if I didn't have those experiences as a kid.
Most of us grew up with games and have that continued interest to this day. A majority of the concerns about video games revolve around children and adolescents, when the gaming bug first bites. We are still impressionable, young, and are learning from the environment around us. Games offer a way to build upon important developmental skills for children, and can even teach us older dogs some new tricks.
One of the greatest benefits of gaming is increasing our cognitive abilities. They don't rot our brains, contrary to popular belief, but actually work them harder and make them better, faster, and stronger. According to the American Psychology Association, research studies have shown that gaming can improve our problem solving abilities, attention and spatial skills, and increase our creativity. They also impact our emotions, motivation, and potentially even our empathy. Hold onto your butts, we’re talking science now.
Problem solving abilities are enhanced when our characters are placed into situations where we must solve a puzzle to reach the objective and advance the game. We must use available resources to solve the problem, and in doing so this exercises our brains and makes us more efficient in the real world. Depending on the type of puzzle, the gamer may have to use memorization techniques, analytical thinking, or develop strategies to progress. Zelda dungeons are a good example – you memorize the layout of the dungeon, use the available tools that Link has to find the keys to progress, and upon reaching the boss - strategize ways to defeat them. There’s also a plethora of games out there that focus on puzzles and strategy, such as Portal, Age of Empires, or Starcraft.
Attention and spatial skills are boosted in particular by first person shooter games. When playing your preferred shooter, your brain reacts to find that sniper in the grass or the next target quickly and accurately. Irrelevant information is filtered out and the brain is better able to focus on the situation at hand. Quick action is often needed in order to complete the mission, which heightens attention and allows you to make rapid decisions. Spatially, when you assess the 3-D environment, it allows your brain to have better visual processing and mental rotation abilities. An example of a game to develop these skills is Goldeneye 007, one of the gems from the golden years of Rare. I should probably mention Call of Duty, Halo, and Modern Warfare here too. Some games are also known to help improve hand eye coordination as well as timing, such as Guitar Hero.
Gaming also helps to get the creative juices flowing. The interactive nature of games and imaginary worlds help us to think at a higher level of creativity. The beauty of games is that nearly anything is in the realm of possible. I still remember my first time playing Earthworm Jim as a kid and being amazed at how imaginative it was. Cow launcher? Groovy! Some games lend themselves more to this kind of thinking, such as Minecraft, Mario Paint, or Spore, where players can dream up their own works of art, music, or creatures.
We've talked a bit about how our brains benefit from gaming, but what about our hearts? Let’s get touchy-feely for a moment and talk about emotions. A lot of us play games to help us with our emotions, whether it is to relieve stress from work or to perk us up when we’re having a rough day. I know when I am feeling low, I immerse myself in my favorite game to take a break from the real world. Studies have shown that playing games can improve our mood and increase positivity, so we’re helping ourselves when we pick up a controller or click on a mouse.
Gaming also increases our internal motivation and determination. When we reach a tough level, we don’t just give up and move onto something else. Unless it’s Battletoads, maybe. We reevaluate the situation and aim to finish a level to continue on our adventure. Why is that? Because the game rewards us when we are successful, whether it is greater health, a shiny new weapon, or a new power-up. This positive reinforcement compels us to keep trying to move forward, even in the face of failure. We are also proud of ourselves when we finally figure out that puzzle, defeat a boss, or ultimately finish the game. It’s an achievement, and we are motivated to follow through and complete it. Studies are still being done to understand if this increase in motivation is restricted to gameplay alone, or if it can be applied to the real world as well.
Empathy and gaming is currently on the fence if you take a look at research. On one hand, some games have been shown to desensitize gamers and make them less likely to feel empathy while others have actually enhanced it. Depending on the game, I can understand this. Personally, I feel that my young days of gaming helped me to develop the empathy that I have today. Compelling storylines in games like Final Fantasy or Zelda really help you feel what the characters are going through and make you want to help them succeed. They instill in us a sense of purpose and justice, help us determine right from wrong, and want to take action to restore balance.
More scientific research is being done on video games and their impact on players, and I’m sure we will learn more in the future from our scientist friends. Just remember that games make for better brains and people, despite some of the harsh stereotypes that we hear from time to time. Gaming is a large part of our society and culture, and helping people understand the benefits can only help the future of the habit that we love. Keep on gaming, and let us know how gaming has positively impacted you!