Game Design in Real Life: The Benefits of Playing Games

Caleb Compton
Jul 30 · 7 min read

All too often, whether in the news or in movies and television, people decry the supposed negative effects of video games. Whether this means claiming that violent games are to blame for school shootings (which they absolutely are not), or that they get children addicted to gambling (maybe don’t put gambling in your game, just in case). However, rarely if ever are the positive benefits of gaming brought up.

Like anything, video games have the potential to be harmful, especially if overdone. Spending too much time playing games can have a negative effect on your physical and mental health, just like drinking too much water can lead to water intoxication or breathing too much oxygen can lead to oxygen toxicity. But, if played in moderate amounts games can actually have a number of positive benefits.

The Memory Palace

One area where video games have been shown to have a positive effect is on a player’s memory. According to a Study from the University of California Irvine players who played 3D video games every day for 2 weeks improved their memory by 12% on memory tests, whereas this same effect was not seen in those who played a 2D game during the same time.

The lead researchers in this study, Craig Stark and Dane Clemenson from UCI’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory, believe that this memory increase is due to the similarities between exploring a 3D game environment and exploration in the real world. When the brain is required to keep track of 3D spatial relationships it forms new neurons similar to rats navigating a maze, while this effect was not seen in the 2D control group.

However, while the scientists did not notice a similar memory boosting effect for those who played 2D games, I don’t believe that this should be taken to mean that 2D games have no memory benefits. While this study did not find such results in 2D games, the 2D game that was chosen in the study was Angry Birds, while the 3D game was Super Mario 3D World. While the latter certainly has more spatial reasoning than the former, It’s possible you could see similar effects with 2D games that require more spatial reasoning skills, such as a Metroidvania style game. This is an area that is worthy of further research.

Improved spatial reasoning is almost as great a gift as the existence of Cat Luigi

Another study from the Universite de Montreal showed a similar effect. This study , which was conducted on individuals between the ages of 55 and 75, also showed that playing 3D platforming games (in this case Super Mario 64) resulted in growth in the parts of the brain that control motor control, balance, and spatial memory. These participants also had improvements in their short term memories.

These cognitive benefits are not limited to video games. A study of 3675 elderly participants, some of whom played board games regularly, was designed to show the effects of board games on the development of dementia, mental state and depression.

This study followed the participants for 20 years, and found that those who played board games regularly were 15% less likely to develop dementia than those who did not. It also found that they had less mental decline, and less incidents of depression than the non-board gamers.

The Bright Side of Gitting Gud

One underappreciated benefit of games is one that I talked about last week — they force the brain to learn. Even games that don’t have any “real world” educational value still put the brain into a mode of learning — you learn how the rules and mechanics work, and you begin to understand the strategy better over time.

This simple act of putting the brain into a mode of learning has a number of benefits. Learning causes the brain to produce new connections between neurons, and can possibly even lead to the generation of entirely new neurons in the brain.

According to Anne McLaughlin, PHD psychologist at North Carolina State University, the key to learning is novelty. Games like Tetris or Sudoku, which require players to repeat a similar task over and over, do not cause the same sort of continuous learning as some other games do.

So you’re saying the 450 hours I poured into this game were wasted?

On the other hand, most games are constantly throwing the player into new situations and introducing new challenges. These challenges force the player to learn and improve, and cause the brain to begin generating those new connections and neurons.

This increase in connections and neurons can lead to real, tangible benefits. One of the clearest benefits is an increase in cognitive flexibility, or the brain’s ability to quickly switch between multiple tasks.

Because games often force players to keep track of several different things at once (how much health you have, your ammunition, your goals, the locations of enemies, etc.) they have been shown to improve player’s scores on tests that measure cognitive flexibility. The study cited above specifically used Real-Time-Strategy games, but similar studies have shown action games to similarly improve fast decision making and processing of information.

Mind Over Matter

While playing games can have a number of cognitive benefits, they can also have physical benefits as well. One physical benefit that comes from playing video games is improvements in hand eye coordination, according to a study from Psychological Science. Another study of action games in Nature showed similar results.

This increase in hand-eye coordination has a number of benefits. Not only does it mean that people who play video games regularly are able to perform better at these coordination tasks, but it also means that they are able to learn new motor skills more quickly than non-gamers.

Which means playing Guitar Hero CAN help you learn guitar

Finally, people who play games tend to have better fine motor skills than those who don’t. In the paper entitled “Computer Games and Fine Motor Skills“, 30 gamers were compared to 30 demographically similar non-gamers, and tested in various fine-motor tasks. The gamers consistently performed better at the fine motor tasks, completing them more quickly and with fewer errors.

Myth of the Lonely Gamer

While the perception around video games and who plays them has been slowly changing, the image of a gamer as a lonely person playing games in the basement still persists. However, studies show that playing games can not only be a very social activity, but it might actually be fundamental to the way humans learn social skills.

According to Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell, Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education, playing with other children is a fundamental part of how children develop social skills. Play can help children understand how to cooperate with eachother, and learn how their own actions can affect other people.

In this context “play” can refer to anything from playing with toys, to painting, to playing make-believe. This type of interaction is so fundamental to the way that children develop their relationships with one-another that this type of play can even be seen in non-human animals.

Maybe if they didn’t play so many shooter games they wouldn’t be so violent

However, aside from the general benefits of play board games have shown a number of specific benefits in childhood development. While playing board games has been shown to have educational benefits in teaching literacy, logical thinking, and language skills, perhaps their biggest benefit is the way they help teach social interaction.

Board games are great for social development for a number of reasons. Board games can teach children how to follow rules and take turns, how to lose gracefully, and most importantly, how to cooperate with others.

While the social benefits of board games may seem obvious — after all, in order to play a board game you still need to get people in a room together — video games can also be quite social activities.

While video games have had social interaction from the early days of MUDs, they are still seen by many as a primarily individual activity. However, over the years multiplayer games have become more and more dominant, to the point that a majority of gamers are playing with others online.

However, not only do games provide a way for players to connect with friends online, but they can actually lead to the formation of new friendships. According to that same Pew survey, over 50% of the teen gamers surveyed report playing with friends that they only knew online, many of whom were met through the games themselves.

Until Next Time!

That is all I have for this week. If you enjoyed this article, check out the rest of the blog and subscribe on Twitter, Youtube, or here on WordPress so you will always know when I post a new article. If you didn’t, let me know what I can do better in the comments down below. And join me next week for a look at possibly the worst mistake a game can make.

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