The Benefits of Video Games

One element of modern life that can use a splash of rationalism is the effects that video games can have on children. It is surprisingly rare to find an even-handed discussion of video games in the media. Too often it seems that reporters, pundits, and talk show hosts like to push the panic button and pronounce that our kids’ lives would be so much better if it weren’t for all these dadgum video games. (In previous generations, the corrupting influence was television, preceded by radio, itself presumably preceded by the wily telegram.)

To be fair, it is a good idea to examine the role of these games, considering their prevalence; a recent report from the market research company The NPD Group showed that 91 percent of U.S. children play video games.

In discussing whether video games are helpful or harmful to kids, we have to remember to clarify what we’re talking about. That’s about as vague as asking if “television” is helpful or harmful. Sure, there are things on television that many parents would be wary of presenting to kids, such as erotic movies or Fox News, but there’s also Sesame Street, Mythbusters, and Star Trek.  Similarly, there’s a wide range of video games that kids might play.

When video games get media coverage, the discussion usually centers around violence. Some experts say that violent games have negative effects on kids, while other experts say that there’s no such evidence (at times even while examining the same data), or even that violent games can help kids manage stress.  For now, you’ll have to pick your expert on this topic.  But remember that not all games are violent games, and plenty of them represent creativity, peace, and intellectual pursuits.

So, on to the benefits.

An obvious benefit of playing video games is enhanced manual dexterity. The American Psychological Association detailed a study of surgeons that supports this idea, demonstrating a significant increase in surgical skill and reduction in errors among the surgeons who played games. In the same article, the APA described a study showing how video games can also improve cognitive and perceptual skills, and another paper demonstrating that game-based learning can foster scientific thinking. “This means that games are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but are powerful educational tools and have many effects we might not have expected they could,” said Douglas Gentile, co-author of one of the papers.

Speaking of educational tools: PBS supports video game learning, and has just launched 40 educational games for kids ages two to eight.  It’s not just “educational” games that are useful for instructing, either–teachers in both high school and colleges have turned to games to supplement their teaching plans, using games as diverse as Minecraft, Portal, and World of Warcraft. And both the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army Intelligence Center have used video games for training personnel in critical thinking skills.

Video games can even offer an avenue for physical fitness, as contradictory as that probably sounds. Not all games are couch potato fodder. All three of the major gaming consoles now have motion control options (the Wii, PlayStation Move for the PlayStation 3, and Kinect for Xbox 360) which encourage players to, well, get off their butts. Then there are games and accessories like Wii Fit and Dance Dance Revolution that also motivate players to burn some calories.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a gamer for most of my life, and now that I’m a dad I enjoy playing games with my son. I don’t believe that games have made me more aggressive, and I don’t see any signs that they’ve done so with my boy, either. The worst thing I can say about the games in my life is that at times I have spent time playing when I knew I should have been doing something else–but then, I could just as well have been “wasting” that time watching TV or even reading. (My procrastination knows no bounds.)  

On the positive side, I credit my gaming time with making it easier for me to learn computer skills, useful both in college and in starting my career as a programmer. And through no steering on my part, my son’s favorite games are those that let him build things, not hit things.

And don’t forget—without games, how would we know what it’s like to live in a world where religion is not merely a myth?

Keith Garrett is a writer, programmer, and gamer living in Memphis, Tennessee.