Gaming, Geek Culture, Science, Science and Technology

Can Video Games Make You Smarter?

Recently, I stumbled across an article which suggested that children who play single player video games do better in school than those who don’t play video games, and those who play multiplayer video games. After seeing this (and wondering about what it is that makes single players “better for your brain” than multiplayer games), I decided to take a look at the evidence for video games being good for you – and the evidence which suggests that they’re not.

We’ve all heard horror stories about how first-person shooter games like those in the Call of Duty franchise might desensitise children and teenagers to violent behaviour, to the point at which violence just isn’t that shocking any more, provoking worries about what this could lead children to do and whether this makes them more likely to be violent in the real world. There are also fears of video games making children and teenagers despondent, moody and disengaged from their surroundings. While I can completely understand why a lot of us might want to disengage from the real world by immersing ourselves in our favourite game for hours on end, boosting our self-esteem with all these cries of “level up” and “victory”, being glued to a games console can take time away from social interactions. Studies have even spotted connections between video games, addiction and depression. But amongst all this, we’ve recently seen a lot of research being conducted into the positive effects of video games.

Public domain image
Public domain image

So what evidence is there for the benefits of video games?

Some studies have in fact shown that video games can improve brain function. An experiment at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development set up two groups: one group played Super Mario 64 for thirty minutes a day for two months, while a control group played no video games. At the end of the study, the experimenters found that the group who had played games for two months had increased brain volume in certain areas, those associated with memory, spatial awareness, strategizing and even an improvement in motor skills involving the hands. Action gamers also might be able to pay closer attention to visual detail, as they seem to be better at distinguishing between different shades of grey (the colour, not the book), and some studies suggest that gaming can actually improve eyesight, helping gamers to pick out finer details than non-gamers. This is surprising news for those of us who grew up in fear of spending too long looking at a screen, and gaining the dreaded “square eyes” (although what that means, I still don’t know). Games can even be used in an educational capacity, perhaps by incorporating scientific concepts, replacing the “bad guys” with bacteria, cancer cells or an oil shortage, which can then be used to educate children about diseases or climate change, and engage them more with a topic which they’re learning in school. Some brain-training games have been found to slow the aging process in the elderly, though the evidence for the effectiveness of these is still disputed, with some studies finding no improvements whatsovever.

A Few Words on Causation and Correlation…

So let’s go back to the original story: single player video games make you do better in school. Now, there are a lot of factors to take into account before scheduling in an hour of gaming a day in the hope that you’ll become a genius. Firstly, this link that’s been found (in this particular sample) doesn’t tell us whether video games actually cause this improvement, as there could be a number of factors which differ in these gamers, that enable them to do better in school. For example, the difference between gamers who play single player games and those who play multiplayer might actually relate to the type of person who plays these different game genres. One potential explanation might be that children who like playing single player games with their free time might be more introverted, and more studious, whereas those who prefer teaming up with friends to play Call of Duty might be more outgoing, and feel less motivated spend less time working on their own. However, this is just speculation – an idea that it might be interesting to investigate. Sometimes, playing video games is considered quite a “nerdy” pastime. Perhaps the “nerdiness” of the players is connected to their schoolwork. Or, perhaps it isn’t, but these are simply factors you might want to consider before hailing video games as a bringer of A grades.

That being said, maybe video games can make you smarter, and there is evidence for a whole range of benefits associated with playing video games. As with everything though, this needs to be taken with a little bit of caution. Now, I love video games, and the temptation to spend days on end playing them and reap the rewards of better eyesight, problem-solving skills and cognitive ability is very tempting. But these skills need to be used in the real world, and while video games can be a fun and even educational escape, they’re no substitute for real life, and it’s the real world where we need to be able to apply what we’ve learnt. The epic quests in gaming might feel more exciting, more achievable and more heroic than solving real-life problems, but maybe we can apply what we learn from completing these epic quests to motivate ourselves to solve real-world problems and navigate difficulties in our real lives, rather than our virtual ones. So play your games, gather your armies, and slay those dragons. But afterwards, maybe go outside for a while and talk to someone who isn’t pixelated. And no; shouting “You’re all noobs” down the microphone does not count.

If you’re interested in how video games can make a better world, and why solving gaming problems might seem more preferable and rewarding than real life, you might enjoy this Ted Talk by games designer, Jane McGonigal:

Thank you for reading! I am now back from my short hiatus, during which I was bombarded with exams, so I should be back to posting regularly again! Let me know what you thought of this post: do you think we need to be careful about how long we’re playing games for?

Related Article: Why are Horror Games Scary?

2 thoughts on “Can Video Games Make You Smarter?”

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