Updated October 6, 2018
by Ronaldo Tumbokon
Are video games good or bad for you? It can be both.
Video games are frowned upon by parents as time-wasters, and worse, some education experts think that these games corrupt the brain. Playing violent video games are easily blamed by the media and some experts as the reason why some young people become violent or commit extreme anti-social behavior. But many scientists and psychologists find that video games can actually have many benefits – the main one is making kids smart. Video games may actually teach kids high-level thinking skills that they will need in the future.
“Video games change your brain,” according to University of Wisconsin psychologist C. Shawn Green. Playing video games change the brain’s physical structure the same way as do learning to read, playing the piano, or navigating using a map. Much like exercise can build muscle, the powerful combination of concentration and rewarding surges of neurotransmitters like dopamine strengthen neural circuits that can build the brain.
According to Marc Palaus, author of the study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, there is a broad consensus in the scientific community that playing video games not only changes how the brain performs, but also its structure.
Below are the good and bad effects of video games – their benefits and disadvantages, according to researchers and child experts:
The Benefits: Positive Effects of Video Games
When your child plays video games, it gives his brain a real workout. In many video games, the skills required to win involve abstract and high level thinking. These skills are not even taught at school.
The main benefits of playing video games involve enhancing mental skills that include:
- Problem solving and logic – When a child plays a game such as The Incredible Machine, Angry Birds or Cut The Rope, he trains his brain to come up with creative ways to solve puzzles and other problems in short bursts
- Hand-eye coordination, fine motor and spatial skills. In shooting games, the character may be running and shooting at the same time. This requires the real-world player to keep track of the position of the character, where he/she is heading, his speed, where the gun is aiming, if the gunfire is hitting the enemy, and so on. All these factors need to be taken into account, and then the player must then coordinate the brain’s interpretation and reaction with the movement in his hands and fingertips. This process requires a great deal of eye-hand coordination and visual-spatial ability to be successful. Research also suggests that people can learn iconic, spatial, and visual attention skills from video games. There have been even studies with adults showing that experience with video games is related to better surgical skills. Also, a reason given by experts as to why fighter pilots of today are more skillful is that this generation’s pilots are being weaned on video games.
- Planning, resource management and logistics. The player learns to manage resources that are limited, and decide the best use of resources, the same way as in real life. This skill is honed in strategy games such as SimCity, Age of Empires, and Railroad Tycoon. Notably, The American Planning Association, the trade association of urban planners and Maxis, the game creator, have claimed that SimCity has inspired a lot of its players to take a career in urban planning and architecture.
- Multitasking, simultaneous tracking of many shifting variables and managing multiple objectives. In strategy games, for instance, while developing a city, an unexpected surprise like an enemy might emerge. This forces the player to be flexible and quickly change tactics.
- Quick thinking, making fast analysis and decisions. Sometimes the player does this almost every second of the game giving the brain a real workout. According to researchers at the University of Rochester, led by Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive scientist, games simulating stressful events such as those found in battle or action games could be a training tool for real-world situations. The study suggests that playing action video games primes the brain to make quick decisions. Video games can be used to train soldiers and surgeons, according to the study. Importantly, decisions made by action-packed video game players are no less accurate. According to Bavelier, “Action game players make more correct decisions per unit time. If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference.”
- Accuracy – Action games, according to a study by the University of Rochester, train the player’s brain to make faster decisions without losing accuracy. In today’s world, it is important to move quickly without sacrificing accuracy.
- Strategy and anticipation – Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, calls this “telescoping.” The gamer must deal with immediate problems while keeping his long-term goals on his horizon.
- Situational awareness – – Defense News reported that the Army include video games to train soldiers to improve their situational awareness in combat. Many strategy games also require the player to become mindful of sudden situational changes in the game and adapt accordingly.
- Developing reading and math skills – The young gamer reads to get instructions, follow storylines of games, and get information from the game texts. Also, using math skills is important to win in many games that involves quantitative analysis like managing resources.
- Perseverance – In higher levels of a game, the player usually fails the first time around, but he keeps on trying until he succeeds and move on to the next level.
- Pattern recognition – Games have internal logic in them, and the player figures it out by recognizing patterns.
- Estimating skills
- Inductive reasoning and hypothesis testing – James Paul Gee, professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that playing a video game is similar to working through a science problem. Like a student in a laboratory, the gamer must come up with a hypothesis. For example, the gamer must constantly try out combinations of weapons and powers to use to defeat an enemy. If one does not work, he changes hypothesis and try the next one. Video games are goal-driven experiences, says Gee, which are fundamental to learning.
- Mapping – The gamer use in-game maps or build maps on his head to navigate around virtual worlds.
- Memory – Playing first person shooter games such as Call of Duty and Battlefield series enables the player to effectively judge what information should be stored in his working memory and what can be discarded considering the task at hand, according to a study published in the Psychological Research.
- Concentration – A study conducted by the Appalachia Educational Laboratory reveal that children with attention-deficit disorder who played Dance Dance Revolution improve their reading scores by helping them concentrate.
- Improved ability to rapidly and accurately recognize visual information – A study from Beth Israel Medical Center NY, found a direct link between skill at video gaming and skill at keyhole, or laparoscopic, surgery. Doctors who spent at least three hours a week playing video games made about 37 % fewer mistakes in surgery and performed the task 27% faster than non-gaming surgeons. Another study found that people who play video games on a regular basis are better at registering visual data and are therefore quicker visual learners. They are also more resistant to perceptual interference, and are therefore able to learn for a longer period of time in distracting environments.
- Reasoned judgments
- Taking risks – Winning in any game involves a player’s courage to take risks. Most games do not reward players who play safely.
- How to respond to challenges
- How to respond to frustrations
- How to explore and rethink goals
- Teamwork and cooperation when played with others – Many multiplayer games such as Team Fortress 2 involve cooperation with other online players in order to win. These games encourage players to make the most of their individual skills to contribute to the team. According to a survey by Joan Ganz Cooney Center, teachers report that their students become better collaborators after using digital games in the classroom.
- Management – Management simulation games such as Rollercoaster Tycoon and Zoo tycoon teach the player to make management decisions and manage the effective use of finite resources. Other games such as Age of Empires and Civilization even simulate managing the course of a civilization.
- Simulation, real world skills. The most well known simulations are flight simulators, which attempt to mimic the reality of flying a plane. All of the controls, including airspeed, wing angles, altimeter, and so on, are displayed for the player, as well as a visual representation of the world, and are updated in real time.
Cognitive researcher Daphne Bavalier talks about how video games can help us learn, focus and, fascinatingly, multitask.
Other Benefits of Video Games:
- Video games introduce your kid to computer technology and the online world. You should recognize that we are now living in a high-tech, sophisticated world. Video games make your kid adapt and be comfortable with the concepts of computing. This is particularly important for girls who typically are not as interested in high technology as much as boys.
- Video games allow you and your kid to play together and can be a good bonding activity. Some games are attractive to kids as well as adults, and they could be something that they share in common. When your child knows more than you, he can teach you how to play and this allows you to understand your child’s skills and talents.
- Video games make learning fun. Your kid likes games because of the colors, the animation, the eye candy, as well as the interactivity and the challenge and the rewards of winning. The best way to learn is when the learner is having fun at the same time. That’s why video games are natural teachers. Having fun gives your kid motivation to keep on practicing, which is the only way to learn skills. Video games is also capable of making difficult subjects such as math fun.
- Video games can make your kid creative. A study by the Michigan State University’s Children and Technology Project found a relation between video game playing and greater creativity, regardless of gender, race or type of video game played. (In contrast, use of cell phones, the Internet and computers other than video games was unrelated to creativity, the study found).
- Video games can improve your kid’s decision making speed. People who played action-based video and computer games made decisions 25% faster than others without sacrificing accuracy, according to a study from the University of Rochester. Other studies suggests that most expert gamers can make choices and act on them up to six times a second—four times faster than most people, and can pay attention to more than six things at once without getting confused, compared to only four by the average person. Surprisingly, the violent action games that often worry parents most had the strongest beneficial effect on the brain, according to cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier, who studies the effect of action games at Switzerland’s University of Geneva and the University of Rochester in New York.
- Video games increase your kid’s self-confidence and self-esteem as he masters games. In many games, the levels of difficulty are adjustable. As a beginner, your kid begins at the easy level and by constant practicing and slowly building skills, he becomes confident in handling more difficult challenges. Since the cost of failure is lower, he does not fear making mistakes. He takes more risks and explores more. Your kid can transfer this attitude to real life.
- Video games give your child a feeling of happiness or well-being, which is a human psychological need, according to Berni Good, a cyberpsychologist. In addition to giving your child a sense of competence or mastery when he progresses through game levels, video gaming also helps him relate to others in a meaningful way when he shares his gaming experiences with others in multiplayer gaming or in social media. It also gives him a feeling of being a master of his own destiny.
- Games that involve multiple players encourage your child to work cooperatively to achieve his goals. Your kid learns to listen to the ideas of others, formulate plans with other kids, and distribute tasks based on skills. Some online games are even played internationally, and this can introduce your kid to players of different nationalities and cultures. This fosters friendships among different people.
- Video games that require your kid to be active, such as Dance Dance Revolution and Nintendo Wii Boxing, and games that use Kinect, give your kid a good workout. When playing these active games for 10 minutes, your kid spends energy equal to or exceeding that produced by spending the same amount of time on a three miles an hour treadmill walk.
- Video games make players’ visions become more sensitive to slightly different shades of color, according to a University of Rochester study. This is called contrast sensitivity, and observed particularly in first person shooter games players. “When people play action games, they’re changing the brain’s pathway responsible for visual processing,” according to lead researcher Daphne Bavelier. The training might be helping the visual system to make better use of the information it receives.
- Video games may improve eyesight. Studies have shown that video gaming have better than average eyesight. A study performed by researchers from McMaster University has also found that playing video games could help improve eyesight by teaching the brain to spot small details, follow movements and spot subtle light changes, at least for people with visual difficulties. Another study by vision scientists at the University of Rochester and Vanderbilt University found that children with poor vision see vast improvement in their peripheral vision after only eight hours of training via kid-friendly video games.
- Video games help children with dyslexia read faster and with better accuracy, according to a study by the journal Current Biology. In addition, spatial and temporal attention also improved during action video game training. Attentional improvement can directly translate into better reading abilities. Another study suggests that just one hour of gaming can improve visual selective attention, which is how scientists refer to the brain’s ability to focus while simultaneously disregarding less relevant information.
- Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California states that playing first person shooter games such as Call of Duty have shown to have a “benefit on high congnitive abilities” including focusing for long periods and multi-tasking. He even suggests that these games can be prescribed to children who are struggling to focus in class.
- Kids are not necessarily drawn to video games because of their violence. The attraction lies in their being rewarded by awesome displays of explosions, fireworks, and yes, blood splattering. Also, violent games have the most emotional appeal for kids. But these factors are only secondary to what kids actually enjoy in these games – the opportunity to develop and master skills and have the freedom to make choices in the game universe.
- Violent video games may act as a release of pent-up aggression and frustration of your kid. When your kid vents his frustration and anger in his game, this diffuses his stress. Games can provide a positive aggression outlet the same way as football and other violent sports.
- Playing video games is safer than having your teens do drugs, alcohol and street racing in the real world.
- A study done by researchers at North Carolina State University, York University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology concluded that playing online games do not replace offline social lives, but is expanding it. Loners are the outliers in gaming, not the norm.
- A 2013 study by the Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Human Development and St. Hedwig-Hospital found a significant gray matter increase in the right hippocampus, the right prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum of those who played Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day over two months. These regions of the brain are crucial for spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory and motor performance. Indeed, the increased gray matter in these parts of the brain is positively correlated with better memory. Decreased gray matter is correlated with bipolar disorder and dementia. What’s also striking is that those who enjoyed playing the game has a more pronounced gain in gray matter volume. The study suggests that video game training could be used to counteract known risk factors for smaller hippocampus and prefrontal cortex volume in, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and neurodegenerative disease.
- Other studies found that playing video games change the structure of the brain. Brain regions involved in attention were more efficient in gamers, and regions related to visuospatial skills that were both bigger and more efficient.
- Another study published in Scientific Reports have found that Action Video Gamers have more gray matter and better integration of brain networks associated with attention and sensorimotor function.
- A Bristol University research shows that the “gamification” of learning can reduce the activity of a particular brain network which is responsible for mind wandering. When designed and developed properly, computer-based games can have a beneficial effect on learning.
- A number of research, including the one done in Ruhr-University Bochum show that video gamers have an advantage at learning compared to non-gamers. In their test, video gamers performed significantly better than non-gamers in a learning competition, and gamers showed an increased activity in the brain areas relevant for learning. According to the lead author Sabrina Schenk, “Our study shows that gamers are better in analyzing a situation quickly, to generate new knowledge and to categorize facts — especially in situations with high uncertainties.”
- A study published in the journal Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology in 2016 suggests that “video game use is not associated with an increased risk of mental health problems. On the contrary, the data presented here suggest that video games are a protective factor, especially regarding peer relationship problems for the children who are the most involved in video games. Finally, video games seem to be linked to better intellectual functioning and academic achievement.”
- Another study suggests that playing some video games may even overcome the cognitive skills affected by poverty like focus, self-control, and memory, and may help reduce the achievement gaps related to poverty that are seen in school.
- Video games can stimulate your child’s interest in technology, and can be gateway to learn technological skills such as coding or programming.
- Finally, according to a study, gamers actually tend to be more social, more successful and more educated than people who make fun of them.
- Considering all these, be reminded again that the type of genre affects the brain differently, and one should not generalize that all video games have the same effect or benefit. For example, the researchers of a study hypothesize that playing strategy games result in improving memory tasks, while playing action games that stimulate the limbic area and elicit emotional arousal might be beneficial to those with mood disorders.
- Experts believe that parents playing video games with their kids can boost better communication between them.
The Drawbacks: Negative Effects of Video Games
- Most of the bad effects of video games are blamed on the violence they contain. Children who play more violent video games are more likely to have increased aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and decreased prosocial helping, according to a scientific study (Anderson & Bushman, 2001). Also according to Dmitri A. Christakis of the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, those who watch a lot of simulated violence, such as those in video games, can become immune to it, more inclined to act violently themselves, and are less likely to behave emphatically. Another study suggests that chronic exposure to violent video games is not only associated with lower empathy, but emotional callousness as well.
This, however, is still hotly debated because there is also evidence that shows that excessive use of video games does not lead to long-term desensitization and lack of empathy. A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, for example, didn’t find any long-term effects of playing violent video games and empathy. Another study from University of York found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent, and another study suggests that there is no increase in the level of aggression of players who had long-term exposure to violent video games..
- On the other hand, The American Psychological Association (APA) concluded that there is a “consistent correlation” between violent game use and aggression, but finds insufficient evidence to link violent video play to criminal violence. An open letter by a number of media scholars, psychologists and criminologists, however, find APA’s study and conclusion to be misleading and alarmist. Many experts including Henry Jenkins of Massachusetts Institute of Technology have noted that there is a decreased rate of juvenile crime which coincides with the popularity of games such as Death Race, Mortal Kombat, Doom and Grand Theft auto. He concludes that teenage players are able to leave the emotional effects of the game behind when the game is over. Indeed there are cases of teenagers who commit violent crimes who also spend great amount of time playing video games such as those involved in the Columbine and Newport cases. It appears that there will always be violent people, and it just so happen that many of them also enjoy playing violent video games.
- Some experts also believe that the effect of video game violence in kids is worsened by the games’ interactive nature. In many games, kids are rewarded for being more violent. The act of violence is done repeatedly. The child is in control of the violence and experiences the violence in his own eyes (killings, kicking, stabbing and shooting). This active participation, repetition and reward are effective tools for learning behavior. Indeed, many studies seem to indicate that violent video games may be related to aggressive behavior (such as Anderson & Dill, 2000; Gentile, Lynch & Walsh, 2004). However, the evidence is not consistent and this issue is far from settled.
- In 2018, an analysis of 24 studies involving 17000 youngsters from countries including the U.S., Canada, Germany and Japan and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found those who played violent games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” “Call of Duty” and “Manhunt” were more likely to exhibit behavior such as being sent to the principal’s office for fighting or hitting a non-family member. According to Jay Hull, the study’s lead author “If your kids are playing these games, either these games are having a warping effect on right and wrong or they have a warped sense of right or wrong and that’s why they are attracted to these games. Either way you should be concerned about it.” Hull’s previous research suggests players may also practice riskier behaviors such as reckless driving, binge drinking, smoking and unsafe sex.
- Kids can be addicted to video gaming. The World Health Organization in June 2018 declared gaming addiction as a mental health disorder. A study by the Minneapolis-based National Institute for Media and the Family suggests that video games can be addictive for kids, and that the kids’ addiction to video games increases their depression and anxiety levels. Addicted kids also exhibit social phobias. Not surprisingly, kids addicted to video games see their school performance suffer. MRI scans reveal that addictive video games can have a similar effect on kids’ brains as drugs and alcohol. A series of studines by California State University found that the impulsive part of the brain, known as the amygdala-striatal system was more sensitive and smaller in excessive game players. According to Professor Ofir Turel, heavy game players between 13 and 15 whose self-control system is not yet well-developed can have increased susceptibility to other forms of addiction and can be more predisposed to impulsive and risky behaviors later in life.
Click here for more info on video game addiction, how to treat it, and tips on how to avoid getting your kids addicted to video games.
- A 2017 study from the Université de Montréal suggests that playing action video games like Call of Duty may actually harm the brain. Most study participants mainly use an area of the brain called the caudate nucleus. These players navigate through the game terrain using in-system navigation tools or on-screen GPS, relying on navigational “habit” instead of active learning. It appears that this causes an increase in the amount of gray matter in their caudate nucleus, while it decreases in the hippocampus. Reduced gray matter in the hippocampus has previously been linked to higher risks of brain illnesses, including depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, and Alzheimer’s disease. However players who play games that requires players to navigate using spatial strategies like the 3D Super Mario games have increased grey matter in the hippocampus.
- Too much video game playing makes your kid socially isolated. Also, he may spend less time in other activities such as doing homework, reading, sports, and interacting with the family and friends. On the other hand, a study by researchers at the North Carolina State University, New York and the University Of Ontario Institute Of Technology points out that gamers usually do not replace their offline social lives with online game playing, but rather it expands them. In fact, among gamers, being a loner is not the norm.
- Some video games teach kids the wrong values. Violent behavior, vengeance and aggression are rewarded. Negotiating and other nonviolent solutions are often not options. Women are often portrayed as weaker characters that are helpless or sexually provocative. On the other hand, a University of Buffalo study suggests that violence and bad behavior played in the virtual world may be contributing to better behavior in the real world. Gamers who play violent games may feel guilty about their behavior in the virtual world and this may make them be more sensitive to the moral issues they violated during game play.
- Games can confuse reality and fantasy.
- Academic achievement may be negatively related to over-all time spent playing video games. Studies have shown that the more time a kid spends playing video games, the poorer is his performance in school. (Anderson & Dill, 2000; Gentile, Lynch & Walsh, 2004). A study by Argosy University’s Minnesota School on Professional Psychology found that video game addicts argue a lot with their teachers, fight a lot with their friends, and score lower grades than others who play video games less often. Other studies show that many game players routinely skip their homework to play games, and many students admitted that their video game habits are often responsible for poor school grades.
- Although some studies suggest that playing video games enhances a child’s concentration, other studies, such as a 2012 paper published in Psychology of Popular Media Culture, have found that games can hurt and help children’s attention issues — improving the ability to concentrate in short bursts but damaging long-term concentration.
- Dr Philip A Chan and Professor Terry Rabinowitz, writing in the Annals of General Psychiatry, concluded that: “Adolescents who play more than one hour of console or Internet video games may have more or more intense symptoms of ADHD or inattention than those who do not.” This negative effect may lead to problems in school.
- Video games may also have bad effects on some children’s health, including obesity, video-induced seizures. and postural, muscular and skeletal disorders, such as tendonitis, nerve compression, carpal tunnel syndrome.
- When playing online, your kid can pick up bad language and behavior from other people, and may make your kid vulnerable to online dangers.
- Kids spending too much time playing video games may exhibit impulsive behavior and have attention problems. This is according to a new study published in the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Psychology and Popular Media Culture. For the study, attention problems were defined as difficulty engaging in or sustaining behavior to reach a goal.
- According to Catherine Steiner-Adair, a Harvard-affiliated psychologist and author of the best-selling book “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationship in the Digital Age”, if kids are allowed to play “Candy Crush” on the way to school, the trip will be quiet, but it’s not what kids need. “They need time to daydream, deal with anxieties, process their thoughts and share them with parents, who can provide reassurance.”