The health value of video games

Turns out, they're not a waste of time.

For decades, video games had a reputation for being anti-fitness, mindless diversions, sometimes laced with simulated violence. But new research and trends suggest that gamers are being unfairly maligned. So, are video games a geeky hobby or an overlooked art form? Let’s find out.

The Games We Play
The first video games that appeared around 40 years ago were very basic games with not much complexity by today's standards, though they were revolutionary at the time. But then things got physical. Guitar Hero, Rock Band and Nintendo Wii got people, many of them non-gamers, to interact physically. The later models of Xbox and PlayStation added motion body tracking for calisthenics around an indoor space—Dance Dance Revolution, for example—and now their new VR headsets are making users lean and rotate in simulations that feel real. This summer, Pokemon Go’s augmented reality experience forced players to physically go outside in the real world and get some exercise—albeit with their heads face down at their phones.

“[Decades ago] if you had gone to a video game maker and said you wanted to make a game that forced people to walk around outside, they’d laugh in your face,” says Nick Yee, co-founder and lead analyst of Quantic Foundry, who’s been studying video games as a social science since the 1990s.

However, for many observers of video game culture, the most impact video games have had on society isn’t a physical connection, but their ability to create an emotional one.

Playing Our Emotions
Anyone who’s played Tetris knows that video games can really get into your head—so much that some obsessive players have suffered from the “Tetris effect,” in which mild hallucinations of falling tetrominos appear in day dreams, or block patterns seemingly materialize in everyday sightings. It’s an example of the addictive properties video games can have, even to the casual gamer who just can’t stop playing Candy Crush Saga on a cell phone—most of them adults, not children.

“Humans, from the time we’re infants, love interaction,” says Dr. Pamela Kato, a Ph.D in health psychology in the UK. “Dopamine gets activated so it’s rewarding to get interactivity. If they’re not getting it from their social environment, they’re getting it from a game.”

Video games can also be an emotional escape from reality, like acting out your pro-footballdreams in Madden NFLor being completely transformed into a character in a fantasy world, like in World of Warcraft. Violent games, such as Grand Theft Auto, also provide escapism into an alternate reality. Moreover, those video games also provide a healthy release of stress.

“Video games are similar to any kind of hobby or relaxing activity,” says Dr. Christopher Ferguson, a Ph.D in clinical psychology at Stetson University in Florida, who became interested in the psychological effects of video games since they were one of the scapegoats of the 1999 Columbine incident. In a three year study with teens and young adults, he came to several conclusions about gaming and stress levels.

“Some people might think that playing the more action or violent games might actually increase stress, and our research suggests the opposite,” Dr. Ferguson says. “Particularly for teens and young adults, even playing the violent action games seems to reduce their stress compared to doing nothing.”

Games With Purpose
Stress-relief is one therapeutic quality of video games, but they can do more. Dr. Pamela Kato, professor at Coventry University in England, has devoted her work to the study and development of serious games (which are intended to serve more than entertainment value). As founder of nonprofit HopeLab, she’s conducted randomized trials which concluded that children with cancer who played their video game called Re-Mission, were more likely to adhere to their chemotherapy and treatment regimens, because the game explained how they worked in ways children could relate to, with cartoony characters and weapons. As they controlled a nanobot that warded off cellular sickness with a radiation gun, they realized the value of their treatments—and thus, their behavior in the real world improved significantly.

To engage an older crowd, there’s the game That Dragon, Cancer by Numinous Games, which poetically and dramatically brings players on a narrative journey of a family coping with their child’s terminal cancer. While not as fun as Re-Mission, it’s engaging as a serious game by being strongly immersive through its story.

The Next Level
As video games gain more respect—not just in the entertainment world, but in the arts and sciences circles, too—it'll be interesting to see how they can continue to impact society in positive ways. The Museum of Modern Art has already made acquisitions of several video games that have transcended into art history, including Pac-Man, Tetris, and flOw.And with virtual reality transforming the way we play games (and exercise, for that matter), the benefits are likely to only increase.