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Revenge of the Nerds: The Positive Effects of Video Gaming

September 17, 2013

by J. Andrew Zalucky


(Don’t worry, he’s got just the thing to fix you)

A fascinating research paper, released by The Young and Well CRC’s Gaming Research Group has confirmed what I had long suspected: playing video games can have a positive effect on young people. The paper is called Video Games and Wellbeing: A Comprehensive Review. The paper itself compiles information culled from a variety of studies conducted on the impact of gaming on children and young adults.

The entire paper is an excellent read, but I think this passage from the executive summary makes the point quite nicely:

Existing research suggests that videogames contribute to young people’s emotional, social and psychological wellbeing. Specially, videogames have been shown to positively influence young people’s emotional state, self-esteem, optimism, vitality, resilience, engagement, relationships, sense of competence, self-acceptance and social connections and functioning.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking: “What about excessive gamers who become shut-ins and abandon their academic, career, or familial obligations?” Valid as this question is, it actually relates much more to obsessive behavior in general, and not with gaming as an activity in itself. The same could be said about those who watch Television in excess, though I suspect the positive effects of TV are far fewer than those of video games. The study concedes that “‘excessive’ gamers showed mild increases in problematic behaviors (such as somatic symptoms; anxiety and insomnia; social dysfunction, and general mental health status): but goes on to say that “it was nongamers who were associated with the poorest mental health correlates”. In section 5.3, the study also suggests that future research be focused on effective moderation of gaming and finding the level where the positive effects of gaming begin to dissipate. Seeing as this is something even gamers themselves have often wondered about, I think the findings of that study could be incredibly useful.

And there is the troubling question of the mentally ill or unstable. What if someone with moderate-to-severe psychiatric issues became exposed to an excess of gory and violent video games? For parents, teachers, social workers, and anyone else who cares about the welfare of children, this is a question worth pondering. However, its also important not to scramble the moral calculus behind our judgements of violent acts and aggression on the whole. To shift all or even most of the blame for things like school shootings onto violent media is to shift that blame where it doesn’t belong, and only acts to exonerate individuals who are actually guilty of wrongdoing.

But with these and other concerns aside, there are many positive findings worth exploring. On the subject of anger and other negative emotions, the paper explains that gaming can provide a therapeutic space for both children and adolescents to channel their negative emotions.

Game play for children in the Colwell (2007) study, was said to be used as a means of mood alteration or ‘letting off steam,’ following problems at school, or with friends or with parents. Feelings of anger, guilt, or frustration were then dissipated after some time spent in game play, with players then feeling much happier (Colwell 2007). Children had an understanding of the mood altering benefits of their play and explicitly made a choice to engage with games as they managed their emotions.

This could be said for many forms of recreation of course, be it playing a musical instrument, or more fine-artsy stuff like drawing or painting. (On a side note, there is some research out recently that points to Metal music as a similar source of relief, but more on that some other time) But for many years, parents and other advocacy groups have been either skeptical or openly hostile to the idea that playing video games is good for young people. Many compare it to excessive television viewing, while others go even further to compare it to illicit drug abuse. The drug comparison is an easily dismissed piece of hyperbole, but the point about television merits further discussion. Movies and TV programs can be very thought provoking, but its still a much more passive activity than reading or being actively engaged with a end-to-end task, like a level in a video game. Video Games and Wellbeing contains an entire section on engagement:

Engagement refers to an emotional involvement or commitment to some object or domain of interest, to the experiential intensity of a relationship or interaction, and also to one’s temporal involvement or interactions with activities and social partners in the immediate environments (Shernoff 2012). There is a strong relationship between engagement and positive wellbeing (Shernoff 2012). Of critical importance young people who are interested and involved in skill-building and productive pursuits score higher on measures of psychological adjustment, including measures of self-esteem, responsibility, competence, and social relations (Jessor & Jessor 1977; Shernoff 2012). Positive and engaging experiences then become pivotal for positive wellbeing amongst young people (Shernoff 2012). Intrinsically interesting activities that evoke intense concentration and enjoyment have been described as creating flow or optimal experience as part of the endeavor (Csikszentmihalyi 1998, 2008).

If this is the standard by which we judge activities as “passive” or “engaging”, video games beats TV almost without a fight. Another important function of gaming is that it allows for an imaginative space outside of everyday reality in which a person can explore, uninhibited by the constraints of the “real world”.

To those who would dismiss this as wasteful escapism, then why bother reading works of fiction? Or to that matter, why even use your imagination at all?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. September 17, 2013 10:46 am

    Ohh…good old Dr.Mario, those were the good old days 🙂

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