Research shows that there are various benefits to playing video games. These include cognitive benefits, such as improved reaction time, improved mental flexibility, and improved spatial abilities, as well as other types of benefits, such as reduced stress levels, increased self-esteem, and increased prosocial behavior.
In the following article, you will first learn more about the benefits of playing video games, and about the long-term implications of these benefits. Then, you will see how you can actively use these benefits to your advantage, and how you can assess whether you’re benefiting from playing video games.
The cognitive benefits of playing video games
Playing video games can improve your cognitive performance in a wide range of areas. For example:
- Playing 3D video games can improve your recognition ability and spatial memory.
- Playing action video games can improve your reaction time, without decreasing accuracy.
- Playing first-person shooters can improve your mental flexibility, which means that it makes you better at rapidly switching between tasks and adapting to changes.
- Playing action games can improve your visual processing ability, which means that it makes you better at identifying important information and ignoring irrelevant distractors.
- Playing video games can improve your multi-tasking ability, by increasing your attentional capacity.
- Playing action video games can improve your spatial abilities, including things such as enumeration, multiple-object tracking, spatial resolution, and visuo-motor coordination.
- Playing action games can improve your visual-to-auditory attentional shifting ability, which is important for things such as information processing and reading abilities.
- Playing video games with a physical component can improve your executive functions, attentional processing, and visuo-spatial skills.
Overall, playing video games can lead to a variety of cognitive benefits. However, it’s important to keep in mind that different types of games offer different benefits, meaning that each game can only help you improve a certain set of abilities, which are related to the tasks that you need to perform in it, and that no single game will help you improve all aspects of your cognitive performance.
General benefits of playing video games
In addition to improving your cognitive performance, playing video games also leads to various other benefits. For example:
- Playing video games can help you relax and reduce stress levels.
- Playing video games can increase your self-esteem and improve your mood, and the more competent you feel at the game, the more you’ll benefit in this regard.
Furthermore, video games also offer a variety of benefits that are relevant in specific contexts. For example:
- Playing video games can help teach people about various topics, from science to history, and can also help people learn on their own, especially since it increases people’s motivation to engage with the material.
- Playing field-specific training games (often referred to as serious games or applied games) can help people improve their skills in that field.
- Playing video games that involve cooperating with other players can increase people’s prosocial behavior in real life.
- Playing video games together with your family can improve relationships with family members.
- Playing therapeutic video games can improve mental-health outcomes in various ways, such as by helping people cope with their anxiety or by helping people recover from being ostracized.
- Playing certain video games can improve physical-health outcomes in various ways, such as by encouraging people to exercise or by educating people about health-related topics.
Short-term vs. long-term benefits of video games
As shown above, video games offer a wide range of benefits. Some of these benefits, such as improved mood, are generally short-term in nature, while others, such as many of the cognitive benefits associated with playing video games, can continue to affect people long after they’ve finished playing.
One study, for example, showed that letting kids play a cognitive-training game consistently for a month, led to cognitive improvements which were still significant when the kids were tested 3 months after they stopped playing. Furthermore, neurological studies show that playing video games on a consistent basis can lead to long-term positive changes in terms of how the brain processes information, and in terms of factors such as neural plasticity.
Overall, when it comes to the cognitive benefits of video games, the more you ‘train’ by playing games, the longer the benefits will last, in general. However, the relationship between the time spent playing and the degree of cognitive improvement is complex, so it’s difficult to predict exactly how long the benefits will last in different scenarios, and when it comes to different domains of cognition.
When it comes to other benefits of playing video games, in terms of factors such as motivation, social behavior, and emotional wellbeing, there is similar variability in terms of how long those benefits extend. Nevertheless, even in cases where playing video games has only short-term effects, the benefits can still be substantial enough that playing those games is generally worth it.
The benefits of brain-training games
Brain-training games (sometimes also referred to as brain games) are video games whose primary goal is to help people improve specific cognitive skills, such as the ability to react quickly or the ability to memorize information.
The effectiveness of brain-training games is under debate in the scientific community, with some studies showing that they can lead to an improvement in cognitive performance, and other studies showing that these games do not lead to a significant improvement, especially in comparison with regular video games. Furthermore, research on the topic suggests that, in many cases, brain-training games can help you improve primarily at cognitive tasks that are closely related to the tasks in the game, but that these effects rarely extend to other tasks.
Overall, though the effectiveness of brain-training games is disputed, research suggests that these games can help people improve some of their cognitive skills, to some degree and in some situations.
Therefore, if you enjoy playing brain-training games, and feel like they are helping you improve your cognitive skills, especially when it comes to tasks beyond those in the game itself, then it’s fine to play them. You just need to make sure to keep your expectations realistic when it comes to the cognitive benefits that these games offer, especially since the companies promoting these games can sometimes overhype their product, in an attempt to make them appear more effective than they are.
Using video games to improve your cognitive skills
As we saw so far, playing video games can help you improve various cognitive skills. You will often benefit in this manner regardless of whether you actively try to improve your cognitive skills or not, so if you want to just keep playing while reaping the rewards of doing so, that’s perfectly fine; one of the greatest advantages of video games is that they allow you to improve your cognitive abilities passively, while you’re having fun.
However, if you want to actively try to improve your cognitive skills by playing video games, then there are a few important things that you should keep in mind:
- Different video games will help you train different cognitive skills, meaning that you shouldn’t expect a single game to help you improve all possible skills.
- The improvement to cognitive skills that you get from playing video games won’t always translate in a meaningful manner to external tasks, meaning that it might not have any practical implications when it comes to tasks that you need to perform in the real world.
- There is a limit to how much video games can help you improve your cognitive skills, meaning that, past a certain point, additional playtime likely won’t lead to any meaningful benefits.
Accordingly, to maximize the cognitive benefits that you derive from playing, you should rotate between different types of games, that help you improve different abilities, especially once you feel that you’re hitting the point of diminishing returns when it comes to a certain game. Furthermore, you should try to focus on games that help you improve your skills in a way that translates to real-world tasks that you need to perform.
However, the most important thing to keep in mind is that playing video games with the main goal of actively improving your cognitive performance might cause you to lose out on other important benefits of playing video games. For example, playing video games in this manner might mean that playing no longer help you relieve stress and improve your mood. This is important to take into account, since it means that, in many cases, you might benefit more from simply playing video games for fun, and allowing yourself to improve naturally.
Testing whether playing video games help you improve
If you want to test whether video games are improving your cognitive skills and to what degree, you can assess your performance on tasks that require similar skills to those in the game.
For example, let’s say you want to measure whether playing a new action game will improve your reaction time. Before you start playing the game for the first time, take a few online tests of reaction time, and record your performance on each of them. Then, after playing the game for some time, retake those tests, and compare your new level of performance to what you got when you took the baseline measurements.
Try to keep the testing conditions as similar as possible between the trials, in terms of factors such as the device you take them on or the time of the day in which you take them. This will make your experiment more reliable, by allowing you to control for some variables which might affect the results.
However, keep in mind that even while controlling for these conditions, it will still be difficult to know for sure whether you’ve improved as a result of playing video games, since there are other factors which might also affect the results, such as the fact that you’ve already taken these tests before. In addition, if you play video games regularly, it’s possible that gaming has already significantly improved your cognitive abilities, and that playing new games is mostly keeping you at a high-but-consistent level of performance.
Overall, testing yourself in this manner could help you determine whether playing video games is helping you improve your cognitive abilities, and if so then to what degree. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this approach has a number of serious limitations, and as a result, the outcome of this form of testing should be interpreted with caution.
Potential downsides to playing video games
As this article has shown, there are numerous potential benefits to playing video games. However, it’s important to keep in mind that there are also potential issues that can occur as a result of playing video games.
For example, research suggests that among children and adolescents, playing video games could potentially lead to increased problems in terms of impulsiveness. Furthermore, playing video games can lead to a variety of other issues, particularly among gamers who play them in an excessive or otherwise problematic manner, and most notably among gamers who have a video game addiction.
Overall, you should keep in mind the fact that video games can have some downsides, and not just benefits. However, this shouldn’t necessarily prevent you from playing video games, and in most cases, as long as you play in moderation, and remain aware of potential issues that you might encounter and capable of addressing those issues, you will likely find that video games are mostly beneficial for you.
Potential downsides of violent video games
A common criticism of violent video games in particular is that playing them could potentially cause people to act in a more aggressive or violent manner in the real world. However, there is still much debate in the scientific community regarding this theory, which has been criticized.
For the most part, recent research suggests that it’s unlikely that playing violent video games could lead to serious violent behavior on a large scale, though it could nevertheless be associated with some adverse outcomes, such as increased aggressive behaviors and thoughts, increased desensitization, and decreased empathy.
Overall, this means that you should be wary and watch out for possible negative effects if you choose to play violent video games, but that, at the same time, you likely shouldn’t worry about exaggerated warnings regarding the risks that these games pose.
Summary and conclusions
- Playing video games can lead to various cognitive benefits, such as improved reaction time, improved mental flexibility, improved spatial memory, and improved attentional capacity.
- Playing video games can also lead to various other benefits, such as reduced stress levels, increased self-esteem, and increased prosocial behavior.
- Video games can also be beneficial when implemented in specific contexts; for example, they can help students learn the material, help professionals improve their technical skills, and help people improve their physical and mental health.
- Brain-training games, which are designed specifically to improve cognitive performance, can be beneficial in some cases, but their benefits are generally rather limited, especially when compared to those of regular video games.
- It’s important to keep in mind that different games generally offer different benefits, and that, past a certain point of playing, you will likely hit a point of diminishing return on some of these benefits.