MMO Family: Yes, video games are good for you

The good news continues to arrive for gamers. In the last MMO Family column, we looked at a decade-long British study that showed no connection between playing video games and mental health issues in children. And this week, the American Psychological Association published a report that goes even further, saying that playing video games has tangible benefits.

Can video games really be good for you? Let's take a look in this week's MMO Family.

The article, authored by Isabella Granic, Adam Lobel, and Rutger C.M.E. Engels, begins by acknowledging the bulk of research that looks at the negative aspects of gaming, including violence, addiction, and depression. While the authors don't dispute those studies, their goal was to provide a more balanced perspective and explore the benefits from playing video games. In the United States, 91% of children between the ages of 2 and 17 play video games, and among teenagers in particular, 99% of boys and 98% of girls are gamers. Because of the popularity of video games among children, the publication looked research in how video games had a positive role in four areas of development: cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social.

Play is important

The researchers first looked at the importance of play in general, pointing to decades of research that show how play allows children to explore and fine-tune social skills through roleplay and gives them the opportunity to practice problem solving and work on cooperative skills with their peers. Even play fighting has a role, as it helps to improve social competence. Many of the aspects of play that have been studied for decades could also apply to play in video games.

However, it's hard, if not impossible, to draw conclusions about the positives and negatives of playing video games because the activities and experiences vary from game to game. A look at some of the most popular games over the past year highlights that. In World of Warcraft, players customize their fantasy personae and work together to battle human and NPC opponents. Starcraft 2 gives players the chance to participate in a chess-like strategy game that involves quick decision making and multitasking. The Sims 3 is more focused on the social side of gaming, as players learn skills, work, and develop relationships. In Halo 4, the emphasis is on shooting opponents, and when it's played online, it also cultivates organization and collaboration skills as players battle each other. FIFA 13, meanwhile, highlights the sport side of video games, as players control a team of soccer players. And Minecraft showcases the building aspect of video games and encourages players to share their constructions with others.

The study's authors cite top scholars who point out that it's impossible to draw broad conclusions given the diversity of game experiences. As one scholar pointed out, "One can no more say what the effects of video games are than one can say what the effects of food are." As a result, the researchers narrowed their focus to connections between specific genres of gaming and potential positive effects.

Cognitive effects

Regarding cognitive development, the paper's authors looked at research done on shooter games. They cite studies that show how players develop faster and more accurate attention allocation, higher spatial resolution in visual processing, and enhanced mental rotation abilities in shooter games compared to other types of video games. Even more important, those spatial skills endure and carry over to other spatial tasks beyond video games. There is even research indicating that spatial skills can predict achievement in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), which has become an important part of school curricula in the United States.

In addition to nurturing spatial skills, video games play an important role in problem-solving skills. As the researchers point out, many games present problems without a "manual" on how to solve them. As a result, gamers have a blank slate on which to try a variety of problem-solving techniques, often when there are multiple solutions. This has led to the rise of "digital natives," who learn through trial and error as well as past learned experience, rather than in a linear method such as found in a manual or instruction list.

Lastly, there's evidence that playing any type of video game enhances creativity. It's not conclusive because the research doesn't show whether players become more creative after playing games or whether the video games themselves tend to attract creative people. But the authors point out that it's that creativity that helped make an important breakthrough in AIDS research.

Motivational benefits

If there's one thing video games are good at, its getting players to stick it out and continue to work through a challenge, even when they don't succeed right away. There are several studies that show how video games aim to reach the "motivational sweet spot," which balances challenge and frustration with success and a sense of accomplishment. Failure in video games is actually a motivational tool, so players take on a more enthusiastic attitude toward failure rather than a feeling of disappointment or worthlessness. One study pointed out the connection between that positive attitude towards failure and academic success. While there's still a need for more research, the motivational aspects of playing video games could translate outside of games into how we handle challenges in life.

Emotional benefits

Detractors frequently argue that video games increase the chance of depression and anxiety, but the researchers cite several studies that show the opposite. Playing puzzle games with minimal interfaces, like Angry Birds, actually improve players' moods and promote relaxation. Furthermore, video games can trigger some of the most intense positive emotional experiences after mastering tough challenges, a concept they call "fiero." There are many studies that link positive emotions to improved commitment and achievement in high school and higher self-esteem and less anxiety. There isn't enough evidence yet to prove that the emotional benefits from playing video games carry over outside the game, but there are a few studies that show how video games help players manage their negative emotions and deal with frustration and anxiety in adaptive ways. Roleplaying games like World of Warcraft, which lets players create a variety of avatars with their own skill sets, allies, and abilities, teach players to adapt and adjust to a sweeping change in the rules. Instead of feeling frustrated, players learn to be flexible and reappraise strategies.

Social benefits

Lastly, the researchers point out that video games from 10 or 20 years ago are vastly different from games today because video games have become much more social. Contrary to the stereotype, over 70% of gamers play with a friend. Players need to learn whom to trust on the fly, and they end up honing their social skills (and even learning leadership skills in some cases). There's evidence that prosocial games, even violent video games, lead to an increase in prosocial or "helping" behavior outside the game. The key factor seems to be whether a game is (and the extent to which it is) played cooperatively or competitively.

In addition, some video games encourage civic engagement, the ability to organize and lead people in social causes. The researchers point to a study that showed how adolescent players in games like Guild Wars 2 were more likely to engage in social and civic movements outside the game, like raising money for charity or encouraging people to vote.

They conclude by stressing that video games are complex, and as a result, we need complex models to explain how video games influence players in the areas cited above. Research needs to go beyond simply whether video games are "good" or "bad" because there's far more to it than that. Furthermore, we need better methods of researching video games because too many studies rely on self-reporting and player surveys, which aren't always an accurate reflection of what's really going on, and the results are often limited. The APA publication contradicts the bulk of research that explores negative aspects of video games, but the overall goal was to emphasize the need for better and more balanced approach toward researching video games.

The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to