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Video Games, Even Violent Ones, Aren't All Bad for You

Nov 25, 2013 03:49 PM EST

Playing strategic video games may improve learning, health and social skills, as well as strengthen a range of cognitive abilities including problem solving, reasoning, memory and perception, even if the game is particularly violent, according to a new research review published in the journal American Psychologist.

The researchers behind the study, including lead author Isabela Granic of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, say that while other studies pointing to the adverse effects of video games should not be ignored, the positive experiences and benefits of the video gaming experience should be incorporated into a more holistic view on how video games affect people, especially youth.

"Important research has already been conducted for decades on the negative effects of gaming, including addiction, depression and aggression, and we are certainly not suggesting that this should be ignored," Granic said. "However, to understand the impact of video games on children's and adolescents' development, a more balanced perspective is needed."

The researchers report that video game play may "strengthen a range of cognitive skills such as spatial navigation, reasoning, memory and perception," rather than promoting a sort of intellectual laziness suggested by other studies. The authors found this to be particularly true for popular first-person shooter games such as Call of Duty or Halo.

According to the study, these shooting video games, although violent, enhance a player's capacity to think about objects in three dimensions just as well as a academic courses designed to enhance the same skills would.

"This has critical implications for education and career development, as previous research has established the power of spatial skills for achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," Granic said, noting that this type of enhanced thinking was not found with playing other types of video games, such as puzzles or role-playing games.

Problem-solving skills are also enhanced by video game play, the researchers said, citing data collected on students who reported playing strategic video games, such as role-playing games. The researchers cited a separate 2013 study that reported a correlation in the frequency of a student's strategic video game play and improved grades and problem solving skills the following school year.

Children's creativity was also enhanced by video game play, the researchers said, even if the gaming content was violent. However, this was not found to be true of the children who used other forms of technology such as a computer or cell phone.

Games that can be easily started and played quickly, even if the content is simple, can improve players' moods, ward off anxiety and promote relaxation, the researchers said, citing the classic smartphone and tablet game Angry Birds.

"If playing video games simply makes people happier, this seems to be a fundamental emotional benefit to consider," Granic said.

Moreover, repeated failure while playing video games can function as an effective tool to teach resilience in the face of failure, the researchers said, noting that by learning how to cope with ongoing failures in video games, children learn applicable emotional resilience that they can call upon in their everyday lives.

The study also highlighted that some video games can provide positive medial benefits, pointing to the game Re-mission, a game designed for child cancer patients where the player controls a tiny robot character that blasts away cancer cells, overcomes bacterial infection and manages nausea. Research on how child cancer patients responded to the game found that most patients had greater overall cancer-related knowledge and greater adherence to cancer treatment programs compared to patients who played another game.

"It is this same kind of transformation, based on the foundational principle of play, that we suggest has the potential to transform the field of mental health," Granic said. "This is especially true because engaging children and youth is one of the most challenging tasks clinicians face."

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