The flagship journal of the American Pyschology Association, American Pyschologist, has recently published an article that summarizes a decade of video games research titled The Benefits of Playing Video Games.
The article is a meta-analysis of multiple studies that show:
- first-person shooters improve three-dimensional thinking, a predictor of career success in STEM fields. (“A recently published meta-analysis (Uttalet al., 2013) concluded that the spatial skills improvements derived from playing commercially available shooter video games are comparable to the effects of formal (high school and university-level) courses aimed at enhancing these same skills.”)
- people who play more video games report better problem solving abilities
- video game playing is correlated with creativity
- video game playing is correlated with persistence in problem solving
- puzzle games improve mood, promote relaxation, and ward off anxiety
- playing violent video games cooperatively promotes cooperative behavior, in the short term, outside of the game context
- adolscents who play games with civic dimensions (like games with guilds and collaborative raids) are more likely to be engaged in civic activity in their every day lives.
After reading the article and the press release, I can imagine a spate of news stories will emerge in the days ahead reporting that “pyschologists have proven that games are good for you.”
Most of the studies reviewed in the article don’t prove anything. They show simple correlations or associations. For instance, it’s great that people who play video games report that they are better at solving problems, but that doesn’t prove that video games actually make people better problem solvers. If video game players are more creative, it could be because creative people like video games The authors of the study are very clear about these nuances in each study they report on. In many ways, a truer title might have been something unweildly like “Potential Benefits of Playing Video Games That Are Worth Exploring Further.”
That said, there are a handful of studies, especially around first-person shooters, that do seem to prove that specific kinds of video games train spacial thinking in useful, transferable ways, so strictly speaking, it is true to say that pyschologists have proven that video games are good for you. In this one very specific way. For one specific type of gaming practice.
Of course, proving that they are good for you doesn’t mean that they aren’t also bad for you. There are still plenty of studies that link game playing to anti-social behaviors and other problems. I love video games, and I’m excited that researchers are increasingly focused on their potential benefits, but potential benefits need to be weighed against the outstanding concerns about the wide variety of violent, sexist, and other problematic content in games, and how these media affect developing minds.
And when the media reports something like “games are good for you,” it’s important to remember that pyschologists can’t prove anything is good for you without doing a study on you personally. Scientists can prove that on average, in the population, certain kinds of behaviors or practices and typically lead to certain kinds of results, and these are useful patterns to identify for making educational or theraputic choices, but your individual mileage will vary.
The Benefits of Video Games is a great contribution to the literature on games and learning and games and mental health. But if you read in the news or in your Twitter feed that this one study has settled the debate and proven games are good for you, then I’d recommend taking the time to read the article itself.
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