Benefits of Play Revealed in Research on Video Gaming

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By Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn

Video gaming leads to improved cognition, creativity, sociability

In previous posts, and in Free to Learn(link is external), I described the decline in children’s opportunities to play and explore freely that has occurred over the past several decades.  I also presented reasons to believe that this decline is a cause of well-documented declines in mental health (here), empathy (here), and creativity (here) among young people over this same time period.

health (here), empathy (here), and creativity (here) among young people over this same time period.

The one variety of play that has not declined over these decades, but has increased, is video gaming.  For the most part, children can no longer go outdoors and find others to play with, freely, away from adults, as they once did; but many of them can and do go onto computers and play video games.  Over time, these games have become increasingly varied, complex, creative, and social.  This is especially true with the increasing popularity of multi-player online games.  If you believe the scare articles in the media, you might believe that the rise of video gaming is a cause of declines in psychological health, but, as I have suggested elsewhere (e.g. here), the opposite may be true.  Video gaming may in fact be an ameliorating factor, helping to counteract the harmful effects of the loss of other forms of play.

If video gaming worsens psychological wellbeing, then we should expect to find more mental health and social problems in video gamers than in otherwise similar people who are not gamers.  If video gaming, like other forms of play, generally improves wellbeing, then we should find that gamers are mentally healthier, on average, than non-gamers.  By now, many dozens of studies have examined psychological correlates of and consequences of video gaming, and, taken as a whole, the results overwhelmingly support the idea that video gaming produces many of the same kinds of benefits as other forms of play.  Here is a review of that research.

Cognitive Benefits

Most of the video gaming research to date has focused on cognition.  Correlational studies have consistently revealed that young people who play video games extensively have, on average, higher IQs and perform better on a wide variety of cognitive tests of perceptual and mental ability than do non-gamers.  Moreover, a number of experiments have demonstrated improvement in previous non-gamers’ cognitive abilities when they take up gaming for the sake of the experiment.  I summarized many of those findings in a previous post (here).  Research more recently has confirmed and extended those findings.

In a recent article in Psychological Bulletin, Benoit Bediou and his colleagues (2018) reviewed all of the recent research (published since 2000) they could find concerning the cognitive effects of playing action video games. They found 89 correlational studies, which related the average number of hours per week of action video games to one or more measures of cognitive ability, and 22 intervention studies (true experiments), in which non-gamers were asked to play action video games for a specified number of hours per week, for a specified number of weeks, and were compared with other non-gamers on degree of improvement over that time on one or more cognitive tests.  Their analysis of the correlational studies revealed, overall, strong positive relationships between amount of time gaming and high scores on tests of perception, top-down attention, spatial cognition, multitasking, and cognitive flexibility (ability to switch strategies quickly when old ones strategies don’t work).  Their analysis of the intervention data indicated that even just 10 to 30 hours of video play, over the duration of an experiment, significantly improved performance on tests of perception, attention, spatial cognition, and cognitive flexibility.

Of course, different sorts of video games exercise different kinds of mental abilities.  In contrast to fast-paced action games, strategy role-playing and puzzle games exercise problem-solving skills of a more reflective nature.  Both correlational and longitudinal research have indicated that play at these games improves general problem-solving ability and may even result in higher academic grades (see Granic et al, 2014).

Most video game research has been conducted with teenagers or young adults as participants, but one large-scale study conducted by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Mental Health examined correlates of video gaming in children ages 6 to 11 (Kovess-Masfety et al., 2016).  In this survey, 3195 children and their parents estimated the average number of hours per week that the children played video games, and parents and teachers filled out questionnaires regarding each child’s intellectual, social, and emotional functioning.  The primary finding was that those who played video games for 5 hours a week or more evidenced significantly higher intellectual functioning, higher academic achievement, better peer relationships, and fewer mental health difficulties than those who played such games less or not at all.

Creativity Benefits

To date there has been little research into possible links of video gaming to creativity.  An exception is a study by Linda Jackson and her colleagues (2012) in Michigan, in which the participants were 491 12-year-old children.  These researchers assessed the hours per week that each child typically spent playing video games, and also assessed time spent on cell phones or on the Internet not playing games.  They assessed various aspects of creativity in each child using the well-validated Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (see here for more on this battery of tests).  They found significant positive correlations between amount of time playing video games and every aspect of creativity measured by Torrance’s Tests, which for some aspects were quite large and which held regardless of the child’s gender or race.  In contrast, they found no significant correlations between creativity and non-gaming computer use.  Other research has shown significant positive correlations between amount of video gaming and the personalitycharacteristic referred to as openness to new experiences (Chory & Goodboy, 2011), which itself correlates with creativity.  The results indicate either that highly creative children are drawn to video gaming or that video gaming increases creativity (or both).

In a quite different sort of study, David Moffat and his colleagues (2017) assessed the immediate effect of video game play on creativity.  They assessed young adults for creative thinking, using the Torrance Tests, before and right after 30 minutes of playing a computer game.  The game used, for different groups, was Serious Sam (a shooter game), Portal-2 (a problem-solving game), or Minecraft (a sandbox game involving building and destroying whatever the player wishes).  The result, overall, was a large, significant gain in creative thinking, especially in that aspect of creative thinking referred to as flexibility.  The gain occurred for all three types of computer games, but was greatest for Portal-2.  This study shows that even a short period of video gaming can put one, at least temporarily, into a highly creative frame of mind.  This finding is quite similar to findings in previous research that other forms of play can also boost creativity (see Ch. 7 of Free to Learn;(link is external) also Gray, 2018).

Motivational Benefit

Video games are structured in such a way that the level of difficulty can be continuously increased, so players are challenged to solve ever more difficult problems.  A general lesson from video games, reported by many gamers themselves, is that persistence pays off.  If you keep trying, using various strategies, you will eventually succeed in meeting your goal within the game.  On the basis of this, Matthew Ventura and his colleagues (2013) hypothesized that gamers would be more persistent—less likely to give up early—in solving difficult problems than would non-gamers.  They subsequently confirmed this hypothesis in an experiment with college students.  They found that those who played video games many hours a week persisted significantly longer at attempting to solve very difficult anagrams and riddles than did those who played video games less or not at all. This gain in persistence may help explain the positive correlations between video gaming and school grades, noted earlier.

Emotional Benefits

A very general theory of play, which I have discussed in previous posts and articles (here and here), is the emotion regulation theory.  According to this theory, children (and also other young mammals) deliberately put themselves into fear-inducing and sometimes frustration- or anger-inducing situations in play, and by doing so learn how to regulate their fear and anger.  I have heard from many parents who curtail their child’s video gaming because they see the intense excitement and emotions, including negative emotions, the child experiences during and sometimes for a period of time after the gaming, and they are worried that this is not good for the child.  But research supporting the emotion regulation theory indicates that a major purpose of play is to provide practice at dealing with fear and anger in the relatively safe context of play (Gray, 2018).  In play, children learn that they can experience these emotions and can subsequently calm themselves.  They don’t have to panic or have a tantrum.  There is evidence that children who have been “protected” from experiencing such emotions in play are subsequently less able to deal with the inevitable fear-and anger-producing situations of real life, outside of play (see, for examples, here and here).

Consistent with the hypothesis that video gaming helps children learn to regulate their emotions is the evidence (mentioned earlier) that children who played video games for more than 5 hours a week exhibited fewer mental health difficulties, outside of play, than children who played such games less or not at all (Kovess-Masfety et al., 2016). Also, in studies in which they describe their own perceptions of benefits of gaming, gamers often talk about how video play helps them to deal better with the stress and frustrations of their non-play life (see here, and also Granic et al, 2014).

Social  Benefits

There are many ways by which video play might be expected to produce social gains for players.  As noted earlier, many of the most popular games today are social in nature, as players interact online with other players.  Moreover, whenever possible, friends enjoy playing the same game together, at the same computer or at least in the same room.  And when they are not gaming, children frequently discuss their games and gaming strategies with their friends.  Play has always provided the major context through which children make and interact with friends, and there is reason to think that video gaming serves that function for many children today.  Children deprived of video gaming are likely to be left out of conversations among their peers, because so many of those conversations focus on games.  Thus, it is not surprising that research, such as the study mentioned earlier involving children 6-11 years old, has revealed positive correlations between video gaming and social competence (Kovess-Masfety et al, 2016; for other studies, see Granic et al, 2014; and Olson, 2010; & Stevens et al, 2008).

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