Why video games are good for kids (and you too!)

Should your kids even be playing video games? Video games are often blamed for violence in the real world, which might seem logical at first, but data suggests there is actually an inverse relationship between violent video games and violence in society. Lots of research actually suggests games are a very positive form of play, and can help in the development of children, even producing positive effects that other forms of play don’t.

So let’s look behind the scary headlines, and see how video games can be good for your kids.

Video games can train our brains

Video games have been shown to improve certain aspects of your ability to think. ‘Shooters’, which are usually played from a first person perspective, give players improved spatial skills. It also appears that regular players of shooters are better at allocating their mental resources regarding pattern-recognition. The nature of shooters – 3D spaces, unpredictability and the necessity of quick accuracy – encourages gamers to learn to quickly filter out unnecessary information from what they are seeing, so as to better respond to what’s relevant (someone shooting you!).

Team Fortress 2

Strategy games and role-playing games have also been shown to improve problem solving skills. There haven’t been studies into all types of games, but research has yet to show any of these benefits for racing and fighting games, which is a shame, as I grew up loving racing games.

However, all video games seem to encourage creativity. There is strong connection between playing games and creativity. And although studies have not yet shown if their relationship exists simply because creative people are more likely to play games, my own experience and intuition makes me feel that creative people are no more attracted to games than anyone else.

What is certainly true is that some of the skills and abilities that are encouraged in video games are useful and positive in the real world too.

Game Over. Continue?

In terms of motivation, games do something surprising. Death and failure are common occurrences in video games, and this experience trains players in that old refrain “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”

Game Over - Ikaruga

Where you might expect death or failure to demotivate players, it actually provokes higher motivation and desire to win. This optimistic attitude in the face of challenges is really useful both in education and life in general.

Games provoke joy and relaxation.. is that a bad thing?

Emotionally, things are quite simple. We’ve all heard stories of addicted kids going crazy when mum or dad decides to restrict access to a game (or delete their character in World of Warcraft), but most of the time, for most people that is not the case. We choose to play games for relaxation, escapism and because they make us happy. Playing a game can give you a feeling of gratification when you win, or that nice feeling of being ‘in the zone’ – where you are so involved in the action of a game you are almost unaware of yourself.

REZ HD

There is also evidence that the game designer’s habit of introducing one set of rules in a game, then continually altering them or replacing them altogether also has a positive effect. Games frequently introduce a set of rules, only to change them once players have gained the skills to beat that part. The two Portal games are excellent examples of 3D puzzle games that constantly tweak the rules of play to keep you learning outside your comfort zone.

Instead of feeling frustrated and angry at the rule change, players enthusiastically adapt to the new environment to beat the game. Teaching kids to approach change and difference with enthusiasm instead of fear and frustration has to be a good thing.

Killing in a video game might make you a better person!

Gaming is now a majority activity for young people – the old stereotype of the ‘nerd locked in his room’ has to be thrown out, as it’s simply not true any more, and not just because girls play games too. With most kids playing games, excluding a child from this will make them more socially awkward, and rob them of a ‘common language’ that they can use with their peers.

Games today are also often much more social by design. Online games like World of Warcraft connect millions of people and promote cooperative behavior (at least sometimes).

Some games encourage sociability and cooperation. Again we return to violent shooters, which are often vilified as everything that’s wrong with games (violence!). Violent games that are cooperative have been shown to provoke more cooperative and helpful behavior in players in the real world. So someone playing a team game online is likely to learn cooperative behavior amongst all the chaos and violence on screen, and will use that learning outside games. These benefits are not seen in solo competitive play, so don’t play too much deathmatch mode, where it’s everyone for themselves.

Call of Duty Advanced Warfare multiplayer

Another study suggests that ‘committing immoral behaviors in a video game’ can actually encourage better moral awareness in the real world. It sounds counter-intuitive, but ‘doing bad things’ in games produce genuine feelings of guilt in players with empathy, and this leads to greater moral sensitivity.

Grand Theft Auto has been regularly criticized for all the bad things you can do in it, from soliciting prostitutes to killing innocent civilians. But actual research suggests that players, when given the option, might not take it, and if they do, the feeling of guilt it produces will encourage them not to copy the behavior in real life.

…This might not be true of everyone though, as this video of older people playing GTA V shows!

Media scapegoating of video games

The media has often jumped on violent video games as a scapegoat for terrible tragedies like the Columbine massacre. Violent video games aren’t alone in being blamed for violence – it has happened with movies, TV and pop music, but video games as a cause of violence sounds more convincing. After all, in Mortal Kombat, the player is ‘virtually’ murdering his/her opponent, and in GTA V it’s the player who can mow down a sidewalk of pedestrians.

And yet a 2014 study showed that since 1996, the incredible growth of violent video games has actually accompanied a dramatic drop in youth violence. Now, this doesn’t suggest that violent video games caused the drop, but it certainly does show that they are not causing more violence.

It’s not all good news

A small percentage of young people do show signs of addiction to video games, and they highlight how time spent on video games should be controlled. In the US, as much as 8% of young people who play video games show signs of pathological addiction. While kids (and adults) can learn from video games, they need to learn other things in other places too. Games should be a part of our cultural mix, but not necessarily at the center of it.

As I said in my previous article, parents should not ignore age ratings for games – we should treat them like we do all culture, and control kids access to themes that are too mature.

Games can be good for kids

We’ve seen that there are many ways in which games can be beneficial for children, from improved mental and social skills to greater motivation in the face of challenges. There are certainly dangers, but they are nothing that a little parental knowledge, monitoring, and guidance can’t fix.

Media worries about violent video games and real violence are simply not backed up by facts, and as one of the Elderly Gamers points out, they are probably a good way to get tension and aggression out of your system, rather than encouraging criminality.

So let your kids play games and play with them too!

Sources and further reading:

The Benefits of Playing Video Games, Radboud University Nijmegen

Violent Video games can increase a player’s moral awareness, Venture beat

Elders Play Grand Theft Auto

Video game literacy, Wired

Being Bad in a video game can make us more morally sensitive, University at Buffalo

Just a Game? Unjustified Virtual Violence Produces Guilt in Empathetic Players, Media Psychology

Does Media Violence Predict Societal Violence? It Depends on What You Look at
and When, Journal of Communication

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Follow me on Twitter: @jonathanriggall

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