Benefits & Dangers of Video Game Play

Nov 17, 2016

I’m not a gamer myself, unless you count my Nintendo days (and the entire summer I spent trying to win Contra with my friends), so the subject of gaming never really crossed my mind until I hit graduate school. A colleague of mine was completing her master’s thesis on the learning benefits of gaming, setting out to prove all of the ways action video games can boost learning and inspire creativity.

In fact, I’ve had several friends bond with special needs students over video games, chatting about them, not playing them together, and I found this a brilliant way to reach a student, who was difficult to break through to otherwise. Even if you’re of the mindset that video games have a negative impact on children’s brains, I encourage you to continue reading, as there are many wonderful benefits from casual action video game play.

A 2013 study by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that children who play action games have higher spatial resolution in visual processing, are able to focus their attention more quickly and accurately, exhibit and execute quick thinking and response, more efficiency in neural processing, an increase in creativity. In a nutshell, kids who play video games are, indeed, exercising their brain, but they’re also building their metacognitive, or higher order, thinking.

Game play introduces children to a problem, in which they have to find a solution. Players have to continue trying different approaches to solving the problem before they are rewarded by reaching a new level or getting past a section of the game. All of this problem solving is accomplished by focusing amidst distractions within the game, which is why children with ADHD often excel at playing video games. The nonstop action doesn’t allow the ADHD mind to wander, allowing a child, who typically struggles to focus, to focus on game play.

Using the Summer of Contra as an example, I played the game with two neighborhood friends almost daily that summer. The interesting thing is that, while our parents likely thought we were rotting our brains by playing for hours (but were glad to have us out of their hair), we were actually being highly social and learning critical concepts.

Pew Research reports that 72 percent of teens play video games, with 56 percent of gamers playing with other people. My Summer of Contra is an excellent example of how social gaming happened prior to the advent of online gaming. My friends and I would take what we had learned from playing the previous day, the previous player (we took turns playing), and the previous try. We played the game so many times that we instinctively knew when to hand the controller over, as each of us excelled in different sections of Contra. At first go, we would all take turns trying to defeat a level, but almost always, one of us was better at it than the others. Moving forward, that particular level or section was unofficially assigned a player.

We worked as a team to complete levels, sharing information from previous attempts, brainstorming and offering ideas of how to get past a particular section. We competed against each other to be better at the game, and we worked as a team, or cooperatively, to win the game. And yes, that summer we did, indeed, defeat Contra (with a little help from a Game Genie).

There are definitely feelings of accomplishment when children play action games, and they are instantaneously rewarded for their skill and problem solving abilities with points and advancing levels.

I’m not sure I would categorize this as a danger, but playing action games, typically first person shooter games, does affect children’s emotional states. Countless studies have illustrated the link between children playing violent video games and an increase of aggressive thoughts and behavior. What alarmist headlines often fail to point out is that the link between aggression and violent video games is typically found in children who play for excessive amounts of time.

The negative effects of video game play are typically related to ‘excessive’ amounts of time spent playing, so it helps to understand what those limits are. Professionals recommend that children spend no more than one to three hours playing per day. Of course there are other indicators that your child may be spending too much time playing, such as a slip in grades, neglecting household duties or developing a sedentary lifestyle. Parents should also monitor their child’s behavior -- are they acting more aggressive after playing, are they using offensive language? These are also indicators that it may be wise to limit the amount of time your child is spending playing video games. Consider installing a parental control software that allows you to easily monitor and put limits on the amount of time and your child can play online gaming. As with anything, moderation and balance are the key to maintaining a healthy interest.