Many of us at Lifehacker are big fans of video games. Our esteemed Editor-in-Chief, however, is sceptical that gaming offers any value beyond simple entertainment. More often than not, he argues, games are a dangerous time sink. In this post, I hope to convince him — and any of you who may feel the same way about video games — otherwise, arguing that aside from being a great form of entertainment, video games can also relieve anxiety, teach new skills and help you stay motivated. And I’ve got science to back me up.
A great deal of research examines whether or not video games actually improve cognitive function or ability. and the results have been mixed. Even if you’re familiar with recent research that says that brain training games don’t make you a smarter person, some other preliminary research indicates that it’s not video games as a medium that are the issue, but the types of games you play. That means that answering the question “Can video games make you smarter?” begins with asking what you’re looking to gain by playing them.
Photo by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier.
Current Research Is Conflicted on Which Games Improve Cognitive Ability and What “Smarter” Actually Means
The current state of research into video games and cognitive development is, bluntly, inconclusive. There are studies on both sides of the fence, including a 2009 IMPACT Trial of 487 adults, led by researchers at the Mayo Clinic which indicated that there were some modest improvements in speed and sensory perception in study participants who took part in sensory skill drills over a control group that watched educational videos.
At the same time, a highly publicised 2010 study of 11,430 adults, published in the journal Nature and conducted by the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge showed that there was absolutely no statistical difference in cognitive ability among study participants who played brain training games and skill drills over those in the control group who did not. Cambridge’s research showed that skill drills and brain training games helped people get better at the specific games they played, but were no help when individuals were presented with challenges or puzzles they hadn’t previously practised. Does that mean the participants weren’t getting smarter?
Many people take this to the conclusion that all brain training games, problem solving games, and interactive skill-building tools are useless and fail to improve your mental abilities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here’s why.
Cognitive Ability Versus Cognitive Function: You’re Not Getting Smarter, But You Are Learning Something
Even though the research is mixed, there are still some scenarios where video games can be extremely beneficial to your mental development or abilities. Brain training games may not make you more innovative by default — training in a series of problem solving drills won’t teach you how to solve every problem you come across faster and easier — but they can make you more accustomed to facing new challenges and receptive to them. Essentially, you may not be gaining some inherent knack for solving puzzles, but you are learning something new, which is a worthwhile benefit.
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Point: Video games are fun, but they’re not very productive or useful.
- Counterpoint: One of the biggest benefits of video games and other interactive training techniques is that they offer a type of engaging and interesting activity that can help build and practise new skills. For example, if you want to learn a new language but don’t have the privilege of native speakers to learn from, an interactive game where you practise the language, learn more about the culture, and even have the opportunity to speak or write the language and get immediate feedback on your performance offers a unique opportunity to train.
The same is true for almost any skill, especially those that require you learn a technique, process, or mental ability prior to putting it to good use in the field. You may be training parts of your brain and not the whole, but that doesn’t mean that training should be discounted entirely. Even if you don’t get smarter, you do learn new things.
- Point: Video games only train you in specific skills, which doesn’t impart any greater ability to approach new challenges or obstacles.
- Counterpoint: The key here is in the design and goals of the game in question. Whatever the game aims to train is what you’ll learn. Games that take the problem-solving puzzles and critical thinking exercises that most of us remember as schoolchildren and update them with an interactive and adult-targeted medium can still impart those skills to older players. The issue with many “brain training” video games is that they want you to believe that you’re “getting smarter” by increasing your cognitive ability, or somehow protecting your brain from decay or the effects of ageing by playing them. That may not be true, but games carefully designed to build problem solving, critical thinking, and reading comprehension skills will help you build those skills.
However, it’s important to remember that video games are a medium. Some games build skills and others are purely entertainment. While Brain Age isn’t going to do anything but help you master the specific games on the cartridge, playing Tetris in the right mindset can help you learn spatial relationships the same way playing a historical trivia game can help you absorb facts about historical events. The next step — the key to growing real intelligence — is applying those skills and facts to your day-to-day activities. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney isn’t going to prep you for a legal career, but it does challenge your problem-solving skills.
Photo by gamerscoreblog.
Point: If games in general can help you learn specific skills, there’s no need for video games specifically. You can just pick up a crossword, textbook or mystery novel and hone those same skills.
- Counterpoint: The big difference between picking up the New York Times crossword and playing the iPhone version, or playing Scrabble at a table versus with other people in an internet-connected game like Words with Friends, is really in the person who plays the game. Strictly, interactive media are an artefact of our time, and appeal to people who would often reject those older mediums in favour of newer ones. In addition to catering to our desire to be constantly connected and our need for immediate feedback and rapid-fire puzzles and challenges, video games resonate with us in a way that other media doesn’t. That isn’t to say there’s no place for an old-fashioned mystery novel to challenge a reader to decipher an author’s carefully laid clues before they get to the last page; it is to say that there’s certainly room for both.
Photo by Rebecca Pollard.
There Are Psychological, Physical and Therapeutic Benefits To Video Games, Too
In addition to the benefits of learning new things and developing new skills, video games — when properly applied — can have therapeutic and mental health benefits. If you play video games as a hobby or for relaxation, you likely already know that they can help you relieve stress and anxiety and help you relax. A study by the Rochester Institute of Technology supports this point with data, and specifically shows that games designed to help relieve stress are effective at doing so. While the study doesn’t say that your marathon Xbox sessions on the couch are going to improve your mental health, there’s a lot to be said for the stress and anxiety relief they can offer.
Researchers at the University of Oxford published a study that indicated video games — specifically Tetris — can help treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Similar studies by Grant MacEwan University in Canada and reported by outlets like Psychology Today and Home Post both showed that video games — specifically virtual reality and other avatar-based simulators like MMORPGs and other immersive games — can also help treat PTSD, and indicate that video games can relieve anxiety and stress. Again, the caveat is that the games used in therapy have to be designed to achieve their therapeutic goals, so not just any game will do — researchers either had to design games with a target in mind, or they used commercially available games that fit with the hypothesis they wanted to test.
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Video Games Can Make You Smarter, For Specific Values Of “Smart”
When a scientist conducts research or draws conclusions based on that research, they’re using their data to answer a very specifically designed and narrowly defined question or hypothesis. When the public reads stories with headlines like “video games do/don’t make you smarter,” their interpretation is based on what they perceive the word “smart” or “intelligent” to mean. This means the answer to “Do video games make you smarter” hinges on properly narrowing the conclusion and asking “what do you mean by ‘smarter’?”
The key takeaway here is that with careful attention to the types of games you play and the goals you have while you play — whether it’s to provide motivation to build positive habits, light exercise as a gateway to more activity, training in a new language, or to boost your critical thinking skills with a series of complex problem solving puzzles — it’s very possible to improve your mental abilities with the use of video games as a training tool. Even if you crash on the couch after work and fire up your Xbox, you’re at least relieving stress. Whether or not that means you’re “a smarter person” is up for debate, but I would certainly call someone who has learned how to exercise effectively, manage their diet, learned a new language, can cope with their life’s stressors, and can offer a new approach to a problem a “smarter person,” wouldn’t you?
What do you think? Can video games help you improve your skills and mental abilities, or is it all just entertainment looking for rationalisation? Perhaps you’ve read additional studies one way or the other? Whatever you think, let’s hear it in the comments below.