By Bobby Miller
Interactive, online games can be used to help people overcome phobias and other mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Even games designed for entertainment can benefit a person’s mental health. For instance, “Tetris” can divert a person’s attention away from traumatic events. However, the surprising ways that video games can be used to help people does not end there. Video games can be used to raise your self-esteem, learn empathy, soothe pain and as a teaching mechanism.
Mental Health Benefits: Video Games are Relaxing
Although most people associate video games with bloody violence and intense competition, research suggests that video games can be very relaxing. In fact, they can ease the symptoms of depression and anxiety disorders. Carmen Russoniello, a professor of psychophysiology at East Carolina University, conducted an experiment in which participants chose to play “Bejeweled II,” “Peggle” or “Bookworm Adventures” a few times a week. The freedom to choose which game was essential because being told to play a certain one would make it less fun and empowering.
Results indicated that the participants who played the games felt less depressed, mentally fatigued and angry, and more focused after each gaming session. These effects carried over into the long term. Over the course of a month, the gamers were consistently more relaxed than the group that did not play video games. Russoniello also noted that these benefits were consistent between both sexes and did not vary based on past gaming experience.
There are, of course, many other ways to relax. Medication can help, as can something as simple as taking a walk. However, video games have their own advantages. Shankar Vedantam of the Washington Post reported that Gail Nichols, a woman who has suffered from depression for years, sometimes makes it through difficult nights by playing “Bejeweled.” Since it does not require going outside, the weather and time of day are irrelevant. Plus, since most video games can be played alone, they can help people relax even when they have no one to talk to.
Matthew Fish, Russoniello’s doctoral graduate assistant, said games have a few advantages over medicine as well and that it is easier to make patients comply with video game treatment than with new medication. Plus, many casual games are available on the Internet for free, making them cost-effective. Fish pointed out, pills can have side effects, but video games do not, but “I cannot say that all video games are capable of helping people relax,” he said. However, it is clear that certain types of video games, especially casual ones, can help ease people’s worries.
Video Games Help Build Self-Esteem
While mainstream video games have many potential benefits, there are also games specially designed for psychological purposes. For example, McGill University has developed a few games that, according to its research, should help people build stronger self-esteem. Each game, at its core, involves concentrating on happy faces. For instance, in “EyeSpy,” the player is given a grid of faces and must “click on the [only] smiling/approving face as quickly as possible.” According to the website, this game helps players block out negative stimuli and redirect their attention to positive stimuli. This helps self-esteem because unconfident people tend to focus on any disapproval or hostility that they see.
Of course, commercial video games can give players a sense of accomplishment as well. However, Mark Baldwin, a psychology professor at McGill University, believes that these self-esteem games go much further than that. “I am sure that playing any game that gives an experience of success and competency can give at least a momentary boost to self-esteem,” he said. “I doubt that standard entertainment games address the more complex processes involving social connection and acceptance that we have tried to address, though.”
The games designed by the university’s psychology department can be played for free at selfesteemgames.mcgill.ca. While they are not as entertaining as the average casual game, they can be an amusing way to kill a few minutes even if you don’t struggle with self-esteem issues.
Video Games as an Educational Tool
Video games can also help the mind through education. Games such as “Reader Rabbit,” “Math Blaster” and “The Oregon Trail” have appeared in classrooms for decades. The premise of educational games is simple—kids are more willing to learn when it’s fun. According to Stanford University, Wayne Studor, one of the designers behind the first “Oregon Trail” game, said, “We saw the computer as a medium that would get kids excited about learning. We knew the computer couldn’t replace the teacher, but we wanted them to be excited about learning.” Similar ideas guide LeapFrog Enterprises and its series of educational games.
Video games can also teach social skills. On Nick Jr.’s website, for instance, some of the free games offered are categorized as “Share & Care” games, which “are part of social-emotional learning and include: building self-esteem, cooperating, emphasizing with others and identifying feelings.” An example of such a game is “The Grumpy Bug,” which follows a sour little guy as he gradually learns to smile and be happy.
Other companies have designed video games with similar goals in mind. Last year’s “Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster,” a Kinect for Xbox 360 game, also centers around social interaction. According to Game Informer’s Jeff Cork, “[This] game is a fantastic way to reinforce often-neglected (but critically important) skills like empathy, responsibility and friendship.”
Research supports the idea that nonviolent video games can harbor prosocial attitudes in people of all ages. Psychologists Tobias Greitemeyer and Silvia Osswald have found that any video game where the player is asked to help and empathize with characters can increase prosocial tendencies. The game used in their study, “Lemmings,” has the player protecting and guiding a bunch of little guys by the same name. That in and of itself can increase a person’s sympathy because it appears that video games where the goal is to save people, not hurt them, can foster prosocial attitudes. So a video game does not even have to be specially designed for kids or for social education to have beneficial effects.
Kids definitely aren’t the only ones nourishing their minds through gaming. Video games such as “Brain Age” and “Big Brain Academy” are designed to get people of all ages thinking. Scientific studies on such games have come to different conclusions on their effectiveness, sometimes contending that regular pencil-and-paper math exercises are every bit as helpful. It is clear, though, that these games effectively stimulate the brain. Some doctors have even used “Brain Age” to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s in their patients.
Can Video Games Help Sharpen the Mind?
But can video games designed solely for entertainment also sharpen a person’s thinking abilities? In my own experience, I’ve found that video games push me to think about obstacles from a wide variety of perspectives, to adapt quickly to new situations, and to find patterns. Plus, some role-playing games have made me pull out a calculator while analyzing my team’s stats. While I’ve heard similar testimonies from other gamers, there has been surprisingly little research on how mainstream games affect a person’s mental abilities.
One of the few studies on the matter, conducted by psychologists Kira Bailey, Robert West, and Craig Anderson, concluded that mainstream video games have little effect on cognitive abilities. In fact, they believe that games may even diminish a person’s “proactive cognition.” In other words, regular gamers may have more trouble thinking about the future, about things that aren’t right in front of them, and about things that don’t naturally grab a person’s attention—games are often used to procrastinate, right? However, further research on how different types of games stimulate the brain is necessary.
Armed Forces Use Video Games for Training
Video games can also train people to perform certain tasks, such as flying and driving. U.S. Marine pilots, for example, train by sitting in a cockpit surrounded by displays that offer a 360 degree view of what is going on around them. According to the Gizmag website, the simulation even allows multiple pilots to fly a plane at the same time. The benefits here are enormous. The video game is certainly more cost-effective than a gas-guzzling airplane, much safer and allows the trainer to control the difficulty level.
The U.S. Army has used video games to train recruits in many other ways. For instance, one piece of software, capable of running on any PC, allows users to learn how to control Common Remotely Operated Weapons Stations (CROWS) —which are buildings or vehicles that have remote-controlled guns on top of them. According to the Defense Systems website, the software that teaches soldiers how to use these guns became a part of required training in Iraq after being introduced in 2006.
A military-made game available to the public, called “America’s Army,” has even taught civilians some important survival skills. As the PSX Extreme website reported, a player of the game named Paxton Galvanek was able to save two people from an overturned SUV by applying in-game medical procedures to real life. Thanks to the game, he knew how to get the people out of the SUV and how to control their bleeding. In fact, their conditions were stable by the time paramedics arrived—quite impressive for someone with no “actual” medical or militaristic training.
Games Help Simulate Real-Life Experiences
There seems to be no limit on what video games can simulate. Researchers Hercules Panoutsopoulos and Demetrios Sampson found that even a game designed primarily for entertainment, such as “The Sims 2: Open for Business,” can help players improve their real-life business skills.
Researcher Barry G. Silverman speculates that simulations can also be used to help people deal with social trauma and other difficulties. Specifically, he believes that video games with interactive stories can be used to expose people to different situations. For instance, a game may show parents what it is like to raise a special-needs child, or a game can help children understand the effects of bullying and how to respond to it. However, software needs to be designed that would allow therapists and other non-programmers to easily create and edit stories for this to become widespread.
Exercise with Motion Control Games
In addition to teaching certain skills, video games can help people exercise. By now, most people are aware that not all games consist entirely of sitting around with a controller in your hands. Instead, the Wii Remote, Kinect for Xbox and PlayStation 3 Move allow for motion control and games such as “Wii Fit,” “Your Shape” and “EA Sports Active” get players up and moving. Although physicians such as Rajiv Patel warn that video games usually do not provide the same intensity as traditional workouts, they can be great for people who are not accustomed to rigorous exercise.
Associating exercise with video games can be very helpful for gamers who are trying to motivate themselves to stay active. This is the idea behind the Game Bike, an exercise bike that can be hooked up to a PC, GameCube, Xbox, PlayStation 2 or PlayStation 3 to play racing games. Although sales of the product have been indefinitely suspended, the company firmly believes that it and similar devices can make exercise fun for gamers. “The interactive aspect of the Game Bike motivates the rider to compete within the game,” Jim Stone Jr., the vice president of marketing for Game Bike, said. “The rider is more focused on the game than the actual fact that they are exercising.” Dr. Darren Warburton and other researchers from the University of British Columbia also concluded that the entertainment value of video games can help people exercise.
I, for one, am ready to believe this based on my own experience with video game fitness. I like being able to see how many hours I’ve racked up in “Wii Fit” because it adds to the sense of accomplishment I feel after exercising. However, studies suggest that motivational support from video games works primarily for people who already consider themselves gamers. For instance, although I like filling my “Wii Fit” piggy bank with coins after exercising, non-gamers probably won’t care what a video game “rewards” them with.
In a study published by Educational Technology & Society, researchers William D. Russell and Mark Newton analyzed college students’ moods after traditional exercise versus video game exercise. Non-gamers were actually less likely to feel satisfied after a video game-led workout. So the researchers speculate that video game exercise works best when the participant is a gamer, is able to choose the game freely, and is also able to choose the mode of exercise—cycling, running, or stretching. Simply put, forcing someone to play an exercise game will probably not reap any benefits.
Video Games Designed to Help Users’ with their Sense of Balance
Aside from retail games designed for entertainment, some video games can be specially designed by medical experts to fit specific needs. For example, Dr. Tony Szturm and other researchers in the University of Manitoba’s Department of Physical Therapy designed simple PC games to help elderly people with their balance. The games involved standing on a board—somewhat like the “Wii Fit” balance board—and adjusting one’s balance based on on-screen prompts. Although the elderly participants are not dedicated gamers, they still benefit from how the games self-adjusted the difficulty to an appropriate level. Plus, since the on-screen prompts were randomized, the games allowed for more immersion than predictable, repetitive exercises so even elderly people who are using canes and walkers can benefit from video games.
Video Games Help Hand-Eye Coordination
Most video games are a test of the player’s hand-eye coordination. Whether you’re timing Mario’s jumps or gunning down an opponent, your ability to react quickly and appropriately to stimuli is at work. Research suggests that the improved hand-eye coordination a player develops from gaming over time can carry into other endeavors as well.
Dr. James Rosser Jr., director of Beth Israel Medical Center’s Advanced Medical Technology Institute, designed a surgical video game that simulates real operations. He found that surgeons’ abilities were refined through the game. “Players made 32 percent fewer errors, were 24 percent faster and scored 26 percent better overall than their non-player colleagues,” according to an article on the Forbes Magazine website. Interestingly enough, participants who considered themselves dedicated gamers were even more adept, scoring 42 percent higher than non-gamers overall. This suggests that even commercial games can improve hand-eye coordination across a wide variety of activities. Of course, not all video games involve hand-eye coordination. For instance, turn-based role-playing games such as “Pokémon” and “Final Fantasy” would probably have no effect on hand-eye coordination.
Video Games Distract the Mind from Feeling Pain
However, almost every genre of video game requires concentration. This is significant, for it has long been established that pain—physical and mental—can be eased if a person is distracted from it by focusing on something else. Consequently, focusing on a video game can diminish a person’s pain. Bryan Raudenbush, associate professor of psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University, recently confirmed this benefit of gaming, likening it to meditation and other common forms of distraction. n his experiment, participants played “Wii Tennis,” which can be controlled with one hand, while their other hand was in painfully, freezing water. Those who were playing games rather than just sitting around endured the pain more easily. So, if you’re in any emotional or physical pain, set up a game and concentrate on it.
This study has one obvious implication: video games should be available in hospitals. One charity, called Child’s Play, donates video games and consoles to hospitals, where they are available for patients upon request. They can serve as a strong distraction from pain and, of course, help a young gamer feel more at home in the facility.
Overall, while video games are often demonized as a violent and an addictive waste of time, it is clear that they can have beneficial effects under the right circumstances. Bailey, West and Anderson have asserted that research must move “beyond the simple ‘video games are good’ versus ‘video games are bad’ dichotomy,” recognizing that various types of games can have different effects. To claim that all video games promote mindless violence based on “Mortal Kombat” would be like claiming that all food is unhealthy based on doughnuts.
Further research can help teach us more about the potential benefits of video games. And as technology improves, we can expect a wider variety of gaming experiences to become available to the public at affordable prices.