Since the 1980s, researchers have debated whether or not video games have negative effects on people who play them.
Yet a recent spate of research suggests video games — even so-called first-person shooter games — can have positive benefits, too.
In one study, video games were linked to increased cognitive skills such as spatial awareness, mental sharpness, reaction time, and creativity. Those skills, researchers say, may even transfer to settings outside the game — perhaps one reason why the U.S. Army has used video games to train and recruit for decades.
A new crop of video games goes further: they’re designed to improve mental health. There are even versions for adults.
“I think that maybe we’re finally getting to the point where we’re starting to get smarter about this,” says psychologist Douglas Gentile, PhD. “Designers have realized just how valuable their games can be, and have started to … dream bigger than they have before. I’m hoping that finally we’re starting to catch up to the promise that gaming has always had.”
Gentile, an associate professor of developmental psychology at Iowa State University, is an expert on the effects of video games. While violent video games have been connected to an increase in aggressive thoughts and behavior, he says — such as playground bullying in children — more cooperative games have overtly positive benefits, too.
In a study of more than 2,300 children in Singapore, Gentile and a team of researchers found children who played prosocial games — those that included an element of helping others — showed more empathy, helpfulness, and cooperativeness over the two years of the study. Meanwhile, children who played violent video games demonstrated a decrease in such useful behaviors in the same period, and an increase in less helpful behavior.
Gaming can absolutely affect behaviors, Gentile says. “And, really, there should be no surprise. Because what we’re talking about here … is learning. And anything you practice, you learn, right? There’s no way to stop your brain from learning.”
The catch, Gentile says, is that “games for good” have to be fun to play. “That’s the problem — gamifying something doesn’t immediately make it work. Why is it educational games don’t have a really good track record in school? It’s because they suck. It’s because they’re not fun to play. Just making it a game doesn’t actually make it work.”
Researchers at the University of California–San Francisco’s new Neuroscape lab, opened in March 2014, are working on developing mental health and cognitively skills games for a larger audience.
In the past two years, game creators and investors have also met for a “NeuroGaming” conference in San Francisco to explore games directed toward a range of applications, from mental health and wellness to improving cognitive function.
If you’re interested in playing games for good, you may have to wait a few years. Most games are still in the prototype stage.
In the meantime, some existing games can provide mental health benefits. For children, Gentile recommends the game series Sims, in which players create and then manage and organize a virtual community. Another, Animal Crossing, involves helping neighbors around the user’s recently purchased home. (The appeal of both games is longstanding: Sims is one of the best-selling games in history, and Gentile’s teenage daughters, he says, still play Animal Crossing.) Video games can even be modified to suit cooperative, prosocial ends: one researcher customized the popular game Minecraft to create a world in which users are required to interact cooperatively to achieve certain goals.
For adults, try these cutting-edge mental health games, developed by gamers and psychology researchers:
Used frequently, such games retrain the brain, Gentile says — in essence serving as a form of self-therapy. “I think apps like this can help slow down the pattern of habitual response. … That’s what a good therapist does.”
If you’re interested in furthering the science of good gaming, consider taking part in a study that aims to separate what makes a successful mental health app from the 40,000 or so health apps available. The online study, conducted by the University of California–San Francisco’s Brighten Center, takes just 5 minutes. The center is also conducting a study of apps designed to treat depression.
April 12, 2015
Janet O’Dell, RN