Video games: the good, the bad and the science
When I was young, I wasn’t allowed to have any video game consoles in the house.
My parents thought it would ‘rot my brain’ or ‘ruin my imagination’. For the same reason, we were only allowed to have black and white television and were only allowed to watch non-commercial stations. They relaxed as I got older, even allowing me to get on the early internet in the 90s, but they were never entirely happy about it.
Rather ironically, I now make games and advise organisations on tech and innovation for a living. When I speak to kids at schools about careers in my field, they always love to hear that my work now revolves around the two things my parents hated me doing: games and the internet.
From the parents I talk to, I see a lot more openness and even excitement about careers making games. However, I still see a strong negative stigma against games, particularly when speaking to people over 35—in other words, people who did not grow up playing video games. Like my parents, their concerns centre largely around discouraging creativity but also violence in video games.
It is true that there are some violent video games, just as there are violent films. But for some reason, we quickly dismiss all video games on these grounds but don’t hold film to the same standard. This is despite the fact that, just like films, there are many positive, artistic, educational and even pro-social video games.
In fact, there is a lot of solid research now showing video games are good for young people.
So, should we all be happy to let the kids in our life spend all their time playing Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty?
Not so fast. Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at both sides of the issue.
Video games are good for you!
The first thing consider is what kind of video games we’re talking about. Just like any other media, they’re not all the same.
For example, in 2013, Australian researchers compiled and reviewed existing research and found that there were many positive mental health benefits of video games for young people. Importantly, these benefits were largely derived from a specific kind of video game called massively multiplayer online games (MMOs).
For the uninitiated, MMOs like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV are online games based around persistent virtual worlds where people play together in teams to accomplish shared goals.
Even venture capitalist and MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito has written and spoken extensively about the social benefits of World of Warcraft, including developing leadership skills.
Given the social, community-focused and cooperative nature of many MMOs, it makes sense that they would also support mental wellbeing.
The same is not necessarily true of games that are played solo, but again that depends on the type of game. Minecraft is another great example of a video game that can have many benefits beyond its intended use. Researchers from the Queensland University of Technology are arguing that, based on their findings, Minecraft can be a powerful tool for learning.
And then of course there are the games that are specifically designed for an outcome beyond just entertainment. For example, research out of ECU found a new educational video game they had developed increased knowledge of fractions by more than 10% for the children who played it.
Researchers from ECU found a new education video game increased knowledge of fractions by more than 10%.
These examples show how certain types of video games can be good for our brains. But what about our bodies?
Video games are bad for you!
I recently wrote about the science of yoga and pain. I talked about my debilitating repetitive strain injury (RSI), which resulted from years of using computers and game consoles without sitting correctly or having the correct ergonomic setup.
As an early adopter of games and computers from a young age, I feel like I was a bit of an inadvertent experiment.
With phones, laptops and tablets all being built for portability rather than ergonomics, the incidence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) or ‘tech neck’ is on the rise.
Even emerging technologies such as VR come with potential physical health concerns. Sony’s PlayStation VR headset warns that no one under 12 should be using the device, but the long-term effects of VR on children—and even adults—is not really known.
My parents were concerned with video games rotting my brain or encouraging violent behaviour. American research from 2015 suggests that violent video games do increase aggressive behaviour but do not necessarily encourage criminal activity. Another American study from earlier this year found that violent crimes actually potentially decreased after the release of top-selling video games.
What my parents were not considering was the very real concern about physical effects of computers and video games.
Thinking beyond the screen
So what’s the answer? Are video games good or bad for you?
The answer is both.
For our minds, there are many benefits. But for our bodies, there are many drawbacks. The question I think we need to be asking is how do we make games that are good for both our minds and bodies?
The resolution lies in thinking beyond the screen when we think of games.
This is why I’ve been making physical or mixed reality games for more than 10 years. Games that use technology but are not screen focused. Games that involve walking and running as an interface and parks and streets as the game board. Games that attempt to deliver all the positive benefits of games while avoiding effects of hunching over a screen.
Ten years ago, most people had never heard of this type of game. But since the popularity of the Wii, Dance Dance Revolution and of course Pokémon Go, more healthy gameplay is becoming increasingly mainstream. Even Nintendo’s new console, the Switch, features innovative non-screen focused games like 1-2-Switch.
With major companies like Nintendo creating consoles that encourage physical activity combined with a clear appetite for games that encourage active play like Pokémon Go, the future is bright for games that are good for all parts of us.