A host of studies have found that playing video games in moderation may actually help improve certain areas of cognitive function and mental health. That’s a far cry from the days when people demonized video games as the harbinger of poor health, under achievement and even violent behavior.
New research has shown video games can improve emotional wellbeing, cognitive function and even physical health (if you play the right games). In some cases, video games can improve people’s basic psychological needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy.
Should older people care about those findings? Yes, because the number of people over the age of 50 who played video games grew from 40.2 million in 2016 to 50.6 million in 2019, according to AARP. That makes sense, since the generation of people now reaching 50 were kids when the first Atari games came out and video arcades became a thing in the United States.
Video Games and Emotional Wellbeing
One of the problems with past studies on gaming is that they focused on self-reported behavior rather than observation of actual game play. Oxford University got around this issue by teaming up with video game companies Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America who gave them access to players’ actual play behavior.
The study involved 471 players of the game “Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville” and 2,756 players of “Animal Crossing: New Horizons.” Researchers then followed up with surveys of the players.
The resulting study, published in the Royal Society Open Science, found that playing video games provided positive impacts on emotional wellbeing, something that in turn can influence cognitive performance. They found an association between playing both games and more positive wellbeing among players, theorizing that this may be the result of video games fulfilling basic psychological needs.
The researchers wrote that their findings provided an argument against policies that might regulate how much time people spend playing games. They wrote: “If anything, our results suggest that play can be an activity that relates positively to people’s mental health—and regulating games could withhold those benefits from players.”
It’s Not Just Games Designed to Help Brain Function
Understanding the possible benefits of video games on cognitive function, some have designed games specifically to help improve cognitive function. An example of that is a game from a professor at the University of California-San Francisco recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration to help treat those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
But a review of 35 studies on the emotional and cognitive impact of video games found that commercial video games also have a positive impact. Published in Frontiers in Psychology, the study concluded that video games provide benefits on “cognitive and emotional skills in relation to the healthy adult population” and that the study found efficacy demonstrated “not only for non-commercial video games or commercial brain-training programs, but for commercial video games as well.”
Some of the findings from the 35 studies include:
- Evidence that gaming impacts areas of cognition, including processing speed, reaction times, memory, ability to handle tasking switching, and mental spatial rotation
- Evidence that playing physically active video games (think Nintendo Wii) can have a positive influence on emotional responses
- Some commercial video games can help users develop better stress management, such as horror-based video games used as part of a program to improve soldier’s resilience to stress
- Video games have helped those with anxiety handle emotional and psychological responses to stressors
- Video games have improved performance of women during anxiety-related tasks.
Important Factors About Video Games to Keep in Mind
With video game play, it’s important to keep in mind some important factors. The first is that every study says more detailed clinical research is needed to determine the full impact of video games on cognitive and wellbeing.
The second is that moderation is key with video games. They can become addicting to some people. It’s important to monitor the time spent playing video games and not let it interfere with other activities, especially physical exercise.
Also, the Oxford University researchers noted that one of the appeals of video games is the ability to choose the type of game you play. They hypothesized that video games can benefit people because of self-determination theory, which proposes that “any activity whose affordances align with the motivations of people will contribute to their well-being.” So, choose carefully!