Part 2 of 3 on play

7 good reasons to play video games


I was surprised to learn that playing video games is not a waste of time. I am not a gamer myself, and have never been attracted to it. Given all the time I spend working on a computer, my idea of restful entertainment is a walk on the beach away from a screen. With summertime upon us, it seems a grand time to think about play and games.

My children game, and have gamed well into their young adulthood, beginning with Mario and graduating to SimCity and beyond. You can bet that your students are playing, too, with 183 million active gamers in the US, and roughly 500 million additional gamers worldwide across all platforms. Games, it turns out, can also be a learning tool.

What you learn may be linked to the type of game you play

It may also matter how much time you spend online gaming: the average gamer of any age currently spends 13 hours a week in game spaces. American children average two hours per day. Dr. Andrew K. Przybylski’s 2014 article, “Electronic Gaming and Psychosocial Adjustment” (Pediatrics, August 2014) studied nearly 5,000 girls and boys ages 10 to 15 and found children playing video games for less than an hour a day were better adjusted than children who played for three or more hours a day.

This may be related to the estimate that 70% of those playing video games do so in the company of others, either competitively or cooperatively. In the context of a shared family activity, gaming can be considered healthy, and useful in the development of meta-cognitive skills. A greater number of hours, 10 to 20 per week, without any form of social interaction with peers, did correlate with less ability to interact socially. Dr. Przybylski says, “children who spend more than half their daily free time [playing video games] showed more negative adjustment.”

The more surprising conclusion (to me) was “electronic play has salutary functions similar to traditional forms of play; they present opportunities for identity development as well as cognitive and social challenges.” Both forms of play are about using your imagination to solve problems.  Exactly why I challenge researchers to frame their investigatory work as play!

What about violent games?

There is, of course, considerable literature on connections between violent games and actual violent behavior, and plenty of anecdotal evidence for that.  But given the huge numbers of gamers worldwide, it would certainly be an exercise in futility to attempt a prediction of which gamer might actually erupt into real-world violence. Off-duty soldiers account for the vast majority of people playing Halo 5. The biggest drawback, according to Marina Krcmar, Associate Professor of Communication at Wake Forest University, is that violence is “active” (you pull the trigger) compared to passive (watching someone get shot on a TV program) either of which can be associated with increases in hostility and aggressive conditions due to the lack of negative consequences for bad behavior.  Not to mention the mayhem found in shooting games or other forms of visual entertainment do not show the real-world consequences of injury or death.

Video games have definitely been linked to changes in the physical brain 

A fMRI study by Professor Simone Kuhn at the Max-Planck Institute of Human Development in Berlin found by studying gamers three areas of the brain had grown in a period of two months: the prefrontal cortex, the right hippocampus and cerebellum. These are all involved in spatial navigation (your built-in GPS) and fine motor control (the coordination of small muscles in movement, particularly complex manual dexterity). The prefrontal cortex is associated with learning and memory formation. Gamers, it seems, are more likely to use multiple cues to determine probably outcomes.

What about being a couch potato and playing games?

If you are inside playing games, you are not outside exercising your body, reading a book, playing an instrument (unless it’s Guitar Hero), woodworking, painting, doing pottery, or any other myriad ways that humans have learned to “pass time.”  Again, there is some hope: “Exergames” incorporate a physical element.  Think Wii sports games like bowling, baseball, skiing, golf or tennis, where you have to physically maneuver to get results. Or Zombies Run. Physically active games requiring concentration and cognitive effort are beneficial to brain and body, as reported in a study released May 2017 by Drs. Emma Stanmore and Joseph Firth at the University of Manchester.

So why play video games?

One: According to just-published The Interactive Past: Archaeology, Heritage & Video Games (2017), is that games can inform the study of archaeology and interpreting the past that can potentially act as an important channel for knowledge dissemination.

Two: In my opinion, there is the possibility of using crowdsourcing for large scale research projects that can benefit humanity. Foldit (released 10 years ago) to get players to help figure out the properties of proteins in the diet or Mozak which bills itself as “…a scientific discovery game about neuroscience” to build models of brain cells, are both examples. These are not necessarily slick graphic representations delivering points for death and destruction, but instead allow players to gain points by tracing a structure and graduating to a new one. Chat rooms for players are often built in to these types of games as well, including a social component for players trading strategies or commiserating when faced with an inability to “move up.”

Plus 5: Additional reasons to play video games

Jane McGonigal, a game designer and director of game research and development for the Institute for the Future says there are at least 5 good reasons for playing games. “In today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy.” Games, in other words, provide rewards that reality does not. (From Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World.)

Now, what you have been waiting for, McGonigal’s justification for playing video games:

  1. Allowing whole-hearted involvement in something bigger than yourself;
  2. Creating energy (the opposite of depression);
  3. Nurturing a feeling of optimism and belief in one’s own ability;
  4. Finding a sense of “what’s possible” (even with 80% failure rate inside of any given game); and
  5. Strengthening social bonds by building trust through “playing by the same rules.”

Adding these all together, you get 7 good reasons to play video games

Gaming can result in more positive emotions like optimism, curiosity, wonder, collective intelligence, stronger social connections AND help make the world a better place.

Who knew?


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