The Surprising Mental Health Benefits of Video Games
Video games tend to get bad press.
They have been blamed for countless violent crimes, including the 1999 Columbine High School Massacreand video game addiction has been listed as an official medical condition by the World Health Organization in the latest revision of the International Classification of Diseases. Concerns about video games turning children into violent criminals or anti-social outcasts permeate our pop culture more than ever, but researchers have studied video game addiction and its negative health effects since the 1980s. What does science say? Is playing video games really bad for you?
The short answer: not only is playing video games not inherently bad for you, but there are many mental health benefits that can come from gaming. “The vast majority of research around video games focuses on the negative impact,” says Isabela Granic, a psychologist at McMaster University in Canada and director of the Emotional and Mental Health Games Lab. “After some meta-analyses, it is pretty clear that there is no causal link [between video games and real-world violence].” In fact, research by Granic and others has instead found consistent evidence for cognitive, motivational, emotional and social benefits.
Even first-person shooters like the Loss series which got a lot of the blame for the Columbine Massacre – can give players “enhanced abilities for spatial reasoning and general spatial cognition, hand-eye coordination, multilevel problem solving, etc.,” says Granic. “For the cognitive domain, there’s probably at least two decades of good, solid research showing benefits.” These advantages are found in shooting games like Halo, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Autoalthough these games often generate the most controversy due to their violent content.
Try, try, try again
From a motivational standpoint, many video games reward perseverance and effort when it comes to solving puzzles or defeating bosses. These traits also have benefits outside of games. The “try, try, and try again” mindset that video games reinforce can lead to academic benefits, and also promotes a view of intelligence that values effort over innate ability.
An example is the video game Cupheadwho has received praise for his high level of difficulty which rewards patience, perseverance and effort. This well-deserved pleasure provides players with emotional benefits that are ultimately the goal. As the philosopher Bernard Suits said in his 1978 book The grasshopper, “playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.” It feels good to win, especially when you have to work for it.
The content community
On the other hand, many have written about online harassment in video games, and researchers recognize this as a problem. “There are a lot of people who play [massive multiplayer games like] League of Legends and hate the toxicity that comes with it,” says Granic. “And they stop playing or play with that in the background.” However, there are also social benefits to playing games with others: team spirit, leadership skills and civic spirit.
Playing co-op games has been shown to increase later real-world co-operation, even when the game itself involves violent acts like shooting aliens. Even the most controversial games like Grand Theft Auto does not seem to lead to more antisocial behavior. When it comes to playing these multiplayer games, the community is more important than the content. And some games, like Granic’s favorite, Journey, completely remove all direct communication between cooperating players. “I love this game, it was a great experience…it’s a social game, but there’s no conversation,” she says.
In addition to helping us work with others, video games can also help us look within to learn more about ourselves. Games serve as escapist fantasies, in which we can play with aspects of ourselves that we may not be comfortable playing with in the real world.
A study 2016for example, looked at four people struggling with gender dysphoria and showed how play can help people come to terms with their gender identity in safe ways, for example by play as a character with a gender expression different from their own. “This kind of playful, whimsical experimentation serves a real purpose in people’s lives when they can’t do it in their daily lives,” says Granic.
Video games have been shrouded in stigma for pong debuted in 1972 and launched them into the cultural mainstream. But negative press is not the same as evidence of negative effects. “Something like 97% of kids by the time they turn 18 play it daily, or certainly regularly,” says Granic. “It’s basically ubiquitous. Everyone plays video games.
Rather than serving as harbingers of the end of society, video games have evolved into an art form that challenges us to play, fail, learn, work together, and become more comfortable with ourselves. Don’t listen too carefully to what these people in the Call of Duty lobby say!