Video games have been around for 70 years, starting in research labs to ending up in anyone’s pocket.
In the 1990’ controversies started, with a US congressional hearing in 1992 on the violence of video games, as people started to believe the violence pictured in video games might lead to real-life violence. This gained even more traction a few years later due to the Columbine school massacre blamed on violent video games.
Positive research emerged as a counter-reaction. Researchers have studied video games from all types of perspectives over the years.
In this article, we’ll break down the benefits of playing video games for mental health. From the prism of motivation, emotional regulation, cognitive functions, social benefits, and the use of serious gaming.
A game is an opportunity to focus our energy, with relentless optimism, at something we’re good at (or getting better at) and enjoy. In other words, gameplay is the direct emotional opposite of depression.Jane McGonigal, Reality is Broken: Why Games Makes Us Better and How They Can Change the World
A well balanced video game allows players to feel rewarded due to immediate feedback, and learn from their mistakes when they fail.
Recent studies have shown this positive and balanced motivational loop can be transferred to real life situations overtime. Playing video games cultivating a positive & persistent motivational style might lead to healthy motivation in real life.
Motivation is a core concept to mental health, due to its positive effect on depression, anxiety, and overall mental well being.
In the same vein as motivation, emotional regulation can trickle down from in-game experience to real life.
For children and teenagers, being able to play a game they enjoy leads to positive emotions, such as joy, relaxation, and happiness.
Short games can elicit short-term positive emotions, while longer games can immerse players in a reality they have full control over and create strong positive emotions.
Video games also elicit negative emotions, which creates a healthy emotional balance. Players have to learn to master and adapt their own behaviour, which is a crucial step in the emotional development of children and teenagers. Playing video games can therefore be helpful to create healthy frames of reference for regulating emotions, which at the adolescence stage of development is critical.
Contrary to popular beliefs made by negative press, video games can be very beneficial for brain functions.
Shooters (action) video games improve spatial skills, even for players who had never played those types of games before, and those benefits last long-term and are transferable to other scenarios, making video games a great training tool. A recent study has shown that training is visible in MRI as it activates specific parts of the brain (frontoparietal cortex), meaning shooter video games activate and train the brain in a specific and measurable way.
In addition to spatial skills, video games have been shown to improve problem-solving skills, especially puzzles like games that invite the player to solve a problem from a blank canvas, forcing them to come up with a solution based on imagination and creativity, which is then transferred to real-life problem-solving skills.
That creativity is associated with video games in children, as a positive correlation shows a link between playing video games and high creativity, although it’s unclear if creative people are drawn to video games or if video games train people to be creative.
Video games have been said to have a negative effect on social skills, or be played by people with already diminished social skills. However, studies have shown that video games can improve them instead. Over 70% of players play with friends, the most famous MMO has over 10 million regular players.
Video games require quick thinking about other players for good cooperation, players have to have prosocial skills in order to play well with others, either they already had them or the game improved them.
Multiplayer games are meant to improve cooperation skills such as support and helping behaviours, in order to set up players for success, those skills can then transfer to real-life scenarios.
Beyond that, players who play with friends or simply online with other players tend to have more positive feelings associated with gaming and less hostility, which increases when playing violent video games with others as the cooperation supersedes the violent aspects of the game.
Studies have shown that young MMO players have a strong interest in civic duties and social causes (charity, politics, …), it isn’t clear if the game is causing an engagement or engaged people are playing the game based on their already established interests, but either way video games have a clear positive impact on social and civic skills.
We have established the numerous benefits of playing video games, and research went even further with serious games.
Serious games are using the medium of video games for clinical therapeutic purposes.
It can be an actual video game, for example researchers used Tetris to reduce flashbacks and nightmares following the viewing of a traumatic film. Participants who played Tetris right after reported less flashbacks and nightmares than participants who didn’t.
Video games are also used for exposure therapy, notably for military veterans suffering from war-related PTSD, a virtual reality video game allows them to expose themselves to the traumatic stimuli in a safe and controlled environment, in order to lessen their symptoms overtime.
Video games are being used more and more frequently in clinical settings, as it allows a flexible and creative medium that can be adapted to a lot of different illnesses and patients.
We can assume video games will become even more prevalent in the future as technology progresses and public reception becomes more positive.
Overall video games have been unjustly vilified and can be a source of positive motivation, emotions, socialisation, and a tool to improve mental health disorders, such as PTSD.
Want to learn more about video games? Check out our other resources.
Working on a serious game? Reach out to your dedicated customer success manager or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sources: Granic et al. (2014), Astill Wright, L., Horstmann, L., Holmes, E.A. et al. (2021)