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 video games or not.
Cognitive benefits of video games
Playing video games can improve your cognitive performance in a wide range of areas. For example:
- Playing 3D video games can improve recognition ability and spatial memory.
- Playing action video games can improve reaction time, without decreasing accuracy.
- Playing first-person shooters can improve mental flexibility, which means that it makes you better at rapidly switching between tasks and at adapting to changes.
- Playing action games can improve visual processing ability, which means that it makes you become at identifying important information and ignoring irrelevant distractors.
- Playing video games can improve multi-tasking ability, by increasing your attentional capacity.
- Playing action video games can improve spatial abilities, including things such as enumeration, multiple-object tracking, spatial resolution, and visuo-motor coordination.
- Playing action games can improve visual-to-auditory attentional shifting, which is important for things such as information processing and reading abilities.
- Playing video games with a physical component can improve executive functions, attentional processing, and visuo-spatial skills.
Overall, playing video games is associated with a variety of cognitive benefits. However, it’s important to remember 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, but no single game will help you improve all aspects of your cognitive performance.
General benefits of video games
In addition to improving your cognitive performance, playing video games offers additional benefits in various domains. For example:
- Playing video games can help relax and reduce stress levels.
- Playing video games can increase self-esteem and improve mood, and the more competent you feel at the game, the more you will benefit in this regard.
- Playing video games where you cooperate with other players can increase prosocial behavior in real life.
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 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 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 educating people about health-related topics.
Short-term vs. long-term effects 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 you’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 consistently 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.
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 worth it.
The effects of brain-training games
Brain-training games (sometimes also referred to as brain games) are video games which revolve around helping 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 a significant degree to other tasks.
Overall, though the effectiveness of brain-training games is disputed, research suggests that these games can help some people improve some of their cognitive skills, to some degree. Therefore, if you enjoy playing these games, and feel like they are helping you improve your cognitive skills, especially when it comes to related tasks beyond those in the game itself, then you should keep playing them.
Just make sure to be wary, and keep your expectations realistic when it comes to the cognitive benefits that these games offer. This is an important fact to keep in mind, since the companies promoting them can sometimes overhype their product, which can make them appear more effective than they are.
Using video games to improve your cognitive performance
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 and 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 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 two main things you should keep in mind:
- Different games will improve different abilities.
- Past a certain point of training, you will hit a point of diminishing returns.
Accordingly, to maximize the cognitive benefits that you derive from playing, you should rotate between different types of games, once you feel that you’re hitting the point of diminishing returns.
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 which 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 it 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 performance now 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 the device you take them on, the time of the day, etc. 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, this approach has a number of limitations, which are important to keep in mind, as they mean that the results of doing this always be clear-cut.
Caveats about using video games to improve cognitive skills
While it’s perfectly acceptable to try and use video games in order to improve your cognitive skills, there are a few important caveats to keep in mind while you do so, which were previously mentioned in the article:
- 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 significant manner to other tasks, meaning that it might not have any practical implications.
- There is a limit to how much video games can help you improve your cognitive skills, and past a certain point playing more won’t yield any returns.
Most importantly, keep in mind that playing video games with the main goal of actively improving your cognitive performance might cause you to lose out on other important benefits, such as the ability to use games to 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.
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, it has been frequently suggested that playing violent video games could potentially cause people to act in a more violent manner in the real world, though research suggests that, while this effect might play some role in some individual cases, it’s unlikely to be a significant issue on a large scale.
Moreover, many of the potential issues associated with video games are likely to be relevant primarily among those who play them in an excessive 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 prevent you from playing video games, and in many cases, as long as your video game habit is moderate, and as long as you’re aware of potential issues as you encounter them, you will benefit from playing video games.
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 and help professionals improve their technical skills, and can also play a therapeutic role, 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 often limited, especially when they’re compared against regular video games.
- It’s important to keep in mind that different games can offer completely different benefits, and that, past a certain point of playing, you will likely hit a point of diminishing return on some of these benefits.