Chances are, if you were born anytime between the 80s and the 2000s, you’ve paid your dues to the gods of video gaming. And it is equally likely that you’ve grown up hearing about how video games are a waste of time, ruin our potential, and will rot our brains (thanks, Mom!). There are a lot of stigmas about the gaming community out there. Many people have an image in their head of gamers being anti-social, lazy, and unintelligent, when in actuality the opposite is more likely to be true.
Did you know that all of those hours spent in front of a TV or PC screen could actually be making you smarter? It’s not joke; there have always been concerns (usually from older generations) that video games can encourage violence or even a dissociation from reality in young, impressionable minds. Because of this, the effects of video games on our brains has been a pretty popular subject for studies over the past couple of decades. The results were surprisingly very positive: essentially all studies are unanimous in that they conclude video games aren’t proven to instigate any kind of criminal behavior, and could actually improve the intelligence of those playing them.
So how do video games make you a more intelligent human being? First off, video games improve critical thinking and problem solving skills. I’m not talking about mindless time-sucking apps like Farmville, but rather games that consistently present challenges. Anything from Halo and Call of Duty, to Grand Theft Auto, to classics like Tetris or Bejeweled all exercise your critical thinking. Critical thinking is important because it not only helps you to learn more quickly and retain knowledge, but enables you to better “think outside the box.” It’s the same skill we learn when solving word problems and riddles in grade school.
Puzzle games or “platformers” (two-dimensional games that force the player to work around obstacles to progress) have been shown to help raise IQ in their players. This is accomplished by exercising the gamers’ use of spatial reasoning, attention to detail, and memory. Puzzle games are generally pretty simple in design but can be infuriatingly difficult at higher levels, and include titles like Angry Birds, Bejeweled, and Mario Bros.
Video games also, to an extent, improve your hand-eye coordination and reaction times. This is especially true of challenging PvP (player vs. player) games like Halo, Destiny, or Call of Duty, where you’re pitted against other players who may very well be much, much better than you. Action games require you to react extremely quickly to stimuli and be able to make accurate decisions on the fly. As a bonus, the ability to react quickly in a video game also helps your decision-making skills in life; your decisions might not always be the greatest, but at least you won’t dither forever about what you should be doing.
The theory behind this is that our brains are constantly trying to predict what’s going to happen next; we automatically create “templates” of scenarios so that we can be better prepared to respond to them. Studies have shown that gamers who favor fast-paced action games like those listed above exhibit better template-building than people who participated in other activities. As a matter of fact, people who play action-based games make decisions up to 25% faster than people who don’t game at all.
Another interesting effect of action games is that these titles appear to have a beneficial effect on our cognition. Children diagnosed with dyslexia were able to read more quickly and with higher levels of accuracy after playing action-based games for 12 hours a week.
Paragon or Renegade?
Video games may also be helping us to become more empathetic and to have stronger moral compasses. RPG’s (role-playing games) like Witcher, Fallout, and Dragon Age have developed increasingly realistic dialogue and decision-making options for their main characters. Instead of being presented with a black-and-white, good-or-evil choice, recent RPGs have a tendency to force their players into gray areas… and the decisions you make oftentimes have unforeseen repercussions later in the game or series.
For example, you could choose to spare the life of a thief at one point in your game, only to discover later that he’s a murderer who continued his killing spree as a result of your mercy. Situations like that demand that we develop more three-dimensional, forward-thinking perspectives, and pushes us to analyze the motivations behind our choices. The increased empathy that gamers are presented with for three-dimensional characters also has been shown to foster better social skills in real life situations.
Real-time strategy games (RTS’s) like World of Warcraft have their benefits too. Many contemporary RTS titles are also multiplayer-driven, meaning you need a reliable squad if you want to advance. This style of gaming is hugely beneficial to strategic thinking and the ability to work as a member of a team. You have to be able to plan ahead and think as a member of a single unit, rather than as an individual out for your own gain. Like action games, RTS titles help our brains to predict multiple outcomes and to swiftly create adequate responses.
In addition to contributing to your intelligence, video games can be a huge help to your mental and emotional health. Video games have been shown to reduce levels of stress and anxiety (depending on the game, of course) and promote overall better moods. For example, you wouldn’t think this would be the case, but survival horror games like Outlast or Dead Space help their players to be able to better manage stress and fear in everyday situations. It has also been suggested that video games promote resilience in the face of failure… a concept which anyone who has ever played Dark Souls knows all too well.
And video games aren’t beneficial for just anxiety or depression. Doctors are turning to gaming consoles more and more frequently as a way to help patients cope with certain treatments, especially young patients who may be hard to reach otherwise. At the University of Washington, researchers found that burn victims who played video games during their treatments reported lower levels of pain than those who were offered no distractions. Other hospitals have used a game called Re-Mission to help young cancer patients stay motivated to adhere to their treatment and medication regimens.
While it still isn’t a great idea to spend 100% of your time sitting in front of your game console or computer, you definitely shouldn’t feel guilty about making time for video games a few hours a week. So far, the science is pretty clear: moderate levels of gaming not only help keep your brain healthy and strong, but can also make you a more empathetic and well-adjusted person. So fire up your favorite console and game to your heart’s content!