[In this feature written by two researchers from the Gains Through Gaming Lab in the Department of Psychology and North Carolina State University, you'll find "a selective, non-exhaustive review" research on "benefits afforded to cognition by video game playing", as well as practical thoughts on how you can research "the potential benefits of playing your video games."]
Little Timmy age 12 tells his parents he wants a video game that all his friends are playing. So Dad takes him down to the store and finds that the game is rated Teen. Hmm...
Dad is not sure so he reads the back of the game and finds that the ESRB provides content descriptors to go along with the rating. The descriptors for this game include "Blood and Gore, Crude Humor, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol, Violence." That is a long list of pretty negative words, not to mention that the title has the word "war" in it, so Dad decided against buying the game for Timmy. Sorry Timmy.
Perhaps this outcome could have been different. What if that same ESRB label also included all the positive benefits of playing that particular video game or games just like it? For instance, what if the following were added to the label: "Research has shown that playing this game is linked to: improved reading comprehension; leadership skill development; increased social interaction; improved cognitive functioning."
When making decisions, consumers should know the positives as well as the negatives. So why are consumers currently getting just one side of the story? If the positive psychological benefits of playing a particular video game were known they may counterbalance or even outweigh the perceived negative effects conjured up when reading current content descriptors.
It is unlikely the ESRB will change its labeling system, and there are probably legal issues with making strong causal claims, but that does not mean that developers and publishers can't support, conduct, and publicize research that promotes the benefits of playing their video games.
It is the potential psychological benefits attributable to playing video games that are the focus of the following discussion. Specifically, we provide a selective, non-exhaustive review of the research with a particular focus on the benefits afforded to cognition by video game playing. After which, some advice for developers and publishers interested in having research done on their games will be provided.
Early Video Game Research
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as video games became more ubiquitous, the graphics more realistic, and the plots more engaging, psychologists began research to determine if there were negative implications to playing video games such as increased aggression. The relative merits of this research, still a hot area of inquiry, are open for some debate (i.e., since 1996 violent crime rates in the U.S. have declined while the sales of video games has increased). This is not to say that young children should play excessively violent video games; indeed, they probably should also avoid violent movies or TV.
Given all the research on the potential negative effects, in the late '90s a small group of researchers started wondering if video games might have some positive benefits. The results of these early studies by and large confirmed their hypothesis -- playing video games was related to some positive outcomes. The majority of this research has focused on cognitive functioning which makes sense given that many video games require cognitive skills like problem solving, reaction time, memory, spatial ability, and attention to play the game.
A caveat needs to be made before proceeding; this admittedly selective review of the research only focuses on studies examining the impact of commercially available video games. It does not include research on serious games, games designed to "save the world", or "gamification" (perhaps the most overused term in academia, currently).
While the work in these areas is important, and no-doubt beneficial, the resulting games are explicitly developed to produce positive outcomes (e.g., losing weight, learning chemistry). Research showing the benefits of these games is a more a "proof of concept" than anything else. Unfortunately, some of the the developers of these "make life better" games do not scientifically establish the efficacy of their games, but that is a topic for another article. So this article, as well as our own research, is concerned with commercially available video games made for entertainment purposes.
Most of the research examining the positive benefits of playing video games has focused on cognitive functioning, a broad term used to refer to a whole host of specific mental abilities such as memory, processing speed, working memory, spatial ability, attention, and perceptual skills. Each of these cognitive abilities is measured using specific tests, many of which are similar to or the same as measures of intelligence.
The work by Bravier and Green is widely considered the first set of studies examining the relationship between cognition and video games. In a series of studies they compared the cognitive functioning of undergraduates who were habitual video game players (e.g., played action video games four days per week for at least one hour per day over the last six months) to a group of undergraduates that were non-video game players.
Participants in the habitual video-game group reported playing the following games: Grand Theft Auto III, Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Crazy Taxi, Team Fortress Classic, Spider-Man, Halo, Marvel vs. Capcom, Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear, and Super Mario Kart.
Across the different studies, the authors found that the habitual video game group performed significantly better on tests of visual attention, spatial ability, and visual short-term memory skills compared to the non-video gaming group.
The video game-cognition relationship is even found in participants who you don't think of when the word "video game" is used. In a study of over 150 adults over the age of 65 conducted in our lab we found that almost half our sample played video games at least once a month. Those "gaming grannies" performed significantly better than non-gaming older adults on a wide range of cognitive abilities including memory, reaction time, and spatial ability. In fact, they even performed better on measures designed to assess their real-world memory ability.
By and large the preponderance of the evidence suggests that individuals who play video games perform better on measures of cognitive functioning than individuals who do not play video games. Our work is not alone; other studies have found that older adults who play video games have, on average, better cognitive functioning than those older adults who do not.