How Your Brain Benefits from Video Games

Video games are often stigmatized as a learning hindrance, a waste of time, and a scapegoat for ingraining violent tendencies in today’s youth. Teenage boys that occupy their time with first-person shooter games like Halo and Doom may set their homework aside in favor of what their parents see as a mindless gaming hobby. However, video games may have some surprising benefits in terms of learning, boosting imagination, improving cognitive functions, social interaction, and even exercise. Parents need only to develop a discerning eye for which games benefit their children the most, taking into consideration aspects such as the game’s rating and content.

Educational Benefits

Video games can help children, teens, and even adults retain information on a wide variety of topics and skills. Aside from the obvious mathematic and arithmetic games, even regular video games help people learn to strategize and process information. Video games help you to strengthen your ability to multitask and can help aging adults ward off Alzheimer’s by stimulating parts of the brain associated with memory. Nearly all video games require the player to surpass a series of levels, excelling before they can fight a final boss and win the game. This is easily paralleled with studying and preparing for a final exam, dominating it with an A+. In order to progress, the player has to improve, rendering video games the perfect platform for an integrated learning environment.

Trauma Center is a game for Wii in which players conduct a variety of surgical procedures on patients. The game takes place in the ER wing of a hospital, and lays out vignettes on various medical dramas. And while the procedures aren’t necessarily realistic – tumors pop up out of nowhere and you can slow down time using a special jinx – young players will get a sense of hospital jargon and a lesson on basic anatomy. For the purposes of the game, they will learn that you need to sterilize a wound before bandaging it. While this may not seem like pertinent information for a young person, it may spike their interest in the medical field at large, prompting them to research the topic in more depth elsewhere. In fact, according to James Rosser, director of the Advanced Medical Technology Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, laparoscopic surgeons who indulge in gaming for three or more hours per week make 37% fewer surgical errors as a result of improved focus and hand-eye coordination. Instructional video games are being implemented for doctors in the field to practice without the risk of having to wield their scalpels on actual patients. Such games are not intended for wide audiences like Trauma Center, but use the same basic concept on a much more technical scale, taking advantage of a virtual environment as a means to practice for the real procedure.

Likewise, old-school video games like Frogger require the player to focus on a variety of obstacles to achieve their goals. In Frogger, the player must navigate across an environment, waiting for the appropriate Lilly pad to arrive while simultaneously avoiding hazards such as snakes, otters, and crocodiles. They may seek refuge on a turtle’s back, but must avoid staying on it too long or the turtle may dive under, costing the player a life. The constant need to avoid and adapt to various scenarios requires that the player must be efficient in multi-tasking. It also demands focus and ability to think fast under pressure. These are all skills that can be used in real-life scenarios, especially those that require multitasking and spatial perception such as driving. The elderly could benefit from playing games such as these to keep themselves quick-witted. Recall is an important aspect to Frogger because you must remember that jumping on certain objects causes certain outcomes. This could be beneficial to memory, helping more senior-aged players to improve their memory and cognitive functions associated therein.

An earlier generation may remember games such as Number Munchers and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. These DOS originals made their ways into elementary schools everywhere throughout the ’80s and ’90s, helping children to master academic skills in a fun and interesting way. Educational games today have only improved with time, with gems such as Leapfrog Leapster, which helps children harness math, reading, and language skills all from a portable, handheld device. Characters in the game coincide with iconic characters from childrens’ television shows and movies, such as Cinderalla and Spongebob, helping the audience to relate to the task at hand. The mobility of the gaming console allows children to take advantage of education from their fingertips at any time, such as a long car ride.

Social & Emotional Benefits

Video games can help players to develop a myriad of social skills, honing their interactions with others. This may seem contrary to an activity that is typically done in a solitary environment, but video games provide some children with the opportunity for community. Such is the case for autistic children who garner their social skills in the 3D online game, Second Life. Second Life is an entire virtual world parallel to our actual existence, in which players create an avatar for themselves and interact with others. Brigadoon is a place in Second Life where autistic players can commune with one another, specifically those with Asperger’s Syndrome. Asperger’s Syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism, and those that suffer from it typically struggle with interacting with others. While in the real world they may be alienated by their peers for their condition, Brigadoon is a secret haven where they can practice networking with others, cultivating friendships when it otherwise might be difficult for them. John Lester, an information systems director at Massachusetts General Hospital and research associate at Harvard Medical School, created Brigadoon to aid Asperger’s patients because they tend to have a natural inclination toward technology.

Furthermore, a huge subset of the gaming industry is dominated by the massive multiplayer online role-playing gaming industry, also known as MMORPGs. One of the most popular games of this genre, World of Warcraft is a computer game with internet access, allowing for users all over the world to communicate with one another during gameplay. And while the basic premise of the game concerns shooting aliens, the player will progress more quickly in the game if they work together with others. This encourages the players to become peers, depending on one another as part of a team. While the players must reason, problem-solve, allocate responsibility, and pay attention to their dwindling resources such as ammo, they are also developing interpersonal skills with their teammates. They may harness a better grasp of patience, as when they are waiting for the right moment to strike or when they must be considerate of less skilled teammates who might not allow them to progress in the game as quickly.

Some videogames take an even more direct approach at self-betterment. Jane McGonigal devised the online videogame Superbetter when she suffered a serious brain injury and was having trouble with the healing process. Superbetter reportedly helps its players strengthen physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially by overcoming specific obstacles in life. The player, who may struggle with anything from a recent breakup to obesity, merely redefines the structure of their struggles by thinking of their challenges as bad guys within a game. They gain support from other players, or allies. As they partake in quests that gradually increase their resilience and endurance, they receive power-ups, all for the goal of obtaining their “epic win.” Added benefits such as confidence come from completing your goals and moving closer to self-healing.

Fitness Benefits

The Wii, Xbox Kinect, and Playstation Move have all taken advantage of the idea that gaming can be seamlessly combined with being active. In the past, playing video games for hours on end was blamed for contributing to the obesity epidemic, producing a generation of children that preferred being sedentary indoors with their eyes glued to a television screen as opposed to playing outside. However, gaming systems have utilized technology that essentially allows your body to act as the remote, allowing for games like Wii Tennis and Zumba Fitness for Kinect, both of which force the player to get exercise in order to fulfill the games’ goals. The gaming aspect of the exercise helps people to engage in an activity that they may otherwise reject. While jogging or aerobic classes may feel like a chore, exercise games are perceived as more enjoyable options that can be done from the convenience of your living room. They can be social activities done alongside friends. They also don’t require any kind of pricey gym membership, making games such as those found on Wii Sports a farther more attractive option than traditional exercise.

While sedentary games improve mental dexterity, exergames help improve hand-eye coordination and reflexes. Some of the more aerobic-centric games work you into a sweat, getting your heart rate up for short bursts of time, which can help your metabolism soar. According to the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions, some of the Wii Fit and Wii Sports games exemplify an energy expenditure on par with moderately intense exercise. And while it may not burn as many calories as regular exercise, players may be inclined to play the game for longer lengths of time than they would otherwise spend working out because the games are fun, challenging, and have multiplayer functioning.

The results are even more promising when applied to the elderly. Exergaming may be targeted mostly toward younger crowds, but the elderly likely get the most benefit out of the sport. A study conducted by Elon University in North Carolina compared the Wii Fit balance test scores of 11 healthy senior citizens and 15 equally fit undergraduates and found that the elderly folks performed much worse on the one-legged balance tests than their youthful counterparts. However, after a few rounds of balancing-geared games on the console, the elderly participants were able to dramatically improve their scores while the undergraduates stayed more or less the same. The study deduced that games on the Wii and other active consoles may help seniors to improve balance if they integrated a gaming session into their daily schedules. They may even turn it into a bonding experience between them and their grandchildren who likely already own the gaming systems required.