Are video games good for your brain? Science says yes

Parents have probably been telling kids to stop playing their darned games and go outside since Pong arrived in 1972. For some reason they’re not the only ones who seem to think that video games rot your brain: whether it’s the media or some ‘expert’ chatting on a morning TV show, the notion that video games make you violent/unhealthy/antisocial is still pervasive in 2018. Yet the reality is very different indeed. Hard evidence collated by the researcher Dr. Daphne Bavelier pretty much flips the bird at those kind of accusations. We’re talking facts and figures taken from actual experiments where video gamers were put to the test (and I’m not even talking about the dubious kind that GLaDOS likes to run). So, when mummy or daddy dearest next tell you to stop playing on your Nintendo and get some fresh air, here’s all the evidence you’ll need to convince them you’re actually training your brain in all the right ways. Who knows: maybe they’ll sit down and join you. 

Video games don't actually cause violent behavior, and in fact promote visuospatial cognition

Ah, the big question: do video games cause violent behavior? Tons of anecdotal evidence has been thrown at this topic, and, most confusingly, peer reviewed articles supporting both sides have been published. If both sides are supported by evidence, which is right? That's where this meta analysis article comes in. Think of a meta analysis as a sort of average - it looks at all the completed research on a given topic and attempts to produce a conclusive statement or point from them.

What was found is pretty concrete: if you take away publication bias (people following their own agendas), there is no evidence to support that video games cause any violent behavior outside of the game itself. And even better, the article found the helpful side effect of playing video games: higher visual spatial cognition. So play on!

Super powers in games lead to prosocial behavior

Sometimes an experiment pretends you're not being tested, and then sets the actual experiment on you by surprise (research like to think they're crafty). The thought is that if someone thinks they aren't monitored, they'll act more impulsively instead of checking themselves. This experiment did just that: researchers let a person play with superhero powers, or choose to play a regular character in a video game. Then when the experiment was done, the researcher accidentally spilled a bunch of pencils on the ground to see if the person would help.

The results? The person who had superpowers helped pick up the dropped pencils significantly more often than the regular person. This is called prosocial behavior, and researchers are beginning to find connections between feeling powerful in video games and helping out others in real life. Feel good do good, my fellow gamers.

Playing video games as a family is psychologically healthy

Sitting down with your parents to tackle a video game together may sometimes not be the most enjoyable thing in the world, but research shows that it's in fact a healthy exercise for the entire family! The best part of the results here point to a reduction in internalization on the child's part. You know when you're having a crappy day because you failed a test, and your parent asks you why you feel down, and you zip up your hoodie and say nothing? That's internalizing.

But playing with the family can lead even the quietest of us to open up. There's trend in all of these findings: prosocial behavior. People used to cast video games in this dark and lonely light, but what we're seeing now is exactly the opposite. Video games can teach us about interacting with others and even make us want to do so!

Wii Fit helps children with migraines

Not only does it help children with chronic migraines, but it helps a ton of people with other stuff as well. Pick something, anything, and the Wii Fit will help. Parkinsons? Yup. General motor disabilities? You betcha. Lazy eye? Helps that too.

'But doesn't just exercising do the same thing?', you ask. Yes it does, but what researchers are finding is that the Wii is special because people actually want to use it. If you tell an 8 year old to either walk on the treadmill for an hour or play video games for an hour, what do you think they're going to pick? The Wii led the way in self-motivated rehab, and that's pretty cool.

Video games promote in-game cooperation

Whether you're in the camp that believes video games cause violent behavior, or thinks that they cause only good feelings, there's one thing that everybody agrees on: video games do something to you. That belief is how this research team approached their experiment involving MMOs. If people spend hours together solving problems through cooperation, how does that actually affect them?

Remember that last study that found video games don't cause violent behavior in the real world? That's exactly what these researchers found. They saw an increase in both cooperation and aggression in high level MMO players when they were facing a raid boss. The cooperation was with other players while the aggression was directed towards the raid boss. But outside of the game? Not much transitioned.

Our visual attention is amazing

Have you looked at the HUD of an RTS recently? Minimap, resources, selected units, stats, all shifting as you control an army on-screen. No one can argue against gamer's attentional prowess, but it's never been quantified just how much better it is than the average person's. This research study endeavoured to quantify that claim by using a bunch of shifting colored circles on screen. You had to remember which circles were which color, and then correctly guess one chosen at random. An average person could correctly recall around three circles. The common gamer? Between six and eight.

The benefits don't just disappear when we're older either. In fact, another study showed that adults who played video games as children actually retained their awesome visual attention throughout their growth. All those days of grinding through Super Smash Bros Melee to get Mewtwo paid off; you now are able to multitask like a god.

Video games keep your brain like a child's brain FOREVER (kind of)

In psych terms, plasticity refers to your brain's ability to adapt to new things - like learning a new language (or really just learning anything). Kids are basically little plastic knowledge sponges, but plasticity decreases as we get older.

THAT IS, OF COURSE, UNLESS YOU'RE A GAMER. God bless Daphne Bavelier and her team of researchers: this time they tackle video games in rehab for the impaired brain. What they found was that by playing video games a certain amount every day as a form of rehab, a person who has suffered a brain injury can actually speed up their recovery process. Usually when neurological damage happens its nigh impossible to fully recover, and if video games begin to disprove that, it could be huge for the scientific community.

We're better at filtering irrelevant information than regular people

This one is pretty cool: recent research is beginning to show that gamers can neurologically suppress distractions from affecting a task they're doing. That may sound crazy, but think about it. You're playing League of Legends. You're chilling in your top lane. Pings are flying, chat is going crazy, people are teleporting everywhere, but as soon as you check to see the destruction doesn't affect you, you just go back to farming.

What's happening in your brain is this: every time a distraction arises, a normal person's brain lights up and diverts attention to said distraction to ensure that everything is alright. Gamers, on the other hand, preemptively check the distraction to see whether it requires the brain's attention or not. The distraction gets a brief flare of brain activity, then nothing. We don't dwell. Think of all the things this affects: driving, conversations, working, etc. Even though many of us may have short attention spans, at least we're good at knowing where to put our fleeting attention.

This TED Talk says it all

Dr. Daphne Bavelier is basically the coolest person ever. She's made it her research mission to study video games and see their effects on humans. What she found was so different than what everybody assumes when they think about video games that she gave a TED Talk about the subject. Watch it for yourself, we don't want to spoil it. This video will be the best 18 minutes of your day.

And if you're looking for more science and psychology in video games, check out 10 useful skills you can learn by playing video games.

Zach was once an Associate Editor for Future, but has since moved into games development. He's worked at EA and Sledgehammer Games, but is now Narrative Director on League of Legends and Valorant at Riot Games.