Tuesday 23 January 2018

Does gaming benefit mental health?

Gamers in Taiwan
Gamers in Taiwan

Patricia Casey

Computer games are ubiquitous and here to stay. Some 97pc of young people in the US spend at least one hour per day gaming.

There are regular calls to ban certain games, especially after serious incidents involving perpetrators who were avid players. Many scientific studies have identified problems associated with regular gaming such as addiction, violence, poor concentration and lack of motivation. A developing area is the question of whether there are benefits from gaming. In the past five years, various studies have resulted in counter-intuitive findings.

The image of the gamer as a bespectacled, socially anxious, loner is overly simplistic and studies now show that over 70pc of participants play either with, or against, friends. Even if they are loners, surely establishing contact through games is preferable to listening endlessly to rock music, isolated even from one's surroundings by earphones.

There is now developing evidence that gaming may help young people hone their skills in judging character, since must decide in any game who to trust, who is a good strategist, who can lead, who is caring and so on. They also have to work collaboratively. Researchers are unsure if these skills migrate from the virtual to the real world of family, school, friends etc.

In actual life, most students are praised for the traits they possess (eg cleverness) rather than for their effort. Gaming researchers such as Isabela Granic and colleagues from Radbound University of Nijmegan (writing in the American Psychologist January 2014) propose that video games are an ideal training ground for changing our perspective on intelligence, as they give players concrete, immediate feedback about specific successes and failures. The feedback consists of points, medals, graduation to higher "levels", dead ends in puzzles and so forth.

By virtue of the intermittent nature of the feedback and hence of the success, it accords with decades of behaviourist research that this is the preferred type of reinforcements for developing new behaviours. It teaches those involved that persistence in the face of failure reaps valued rewards. It is tempting to think that failure might lead to anger or sadness, but this doesn't appear to be the case - players have been shown to respond with excitement and renewed interest. Whether this translates into greater persistence in the real world is the subject of ongoing study.

A common reason given by respondents, for engaging in gaming, is that it helps to manage moods and generates positive emotions. Games have also been shown to promote relaxation and a sense of pride at succeeding in the face of adversity. Most of the studies have been conducted on games that need only short rather than long-term engagement, so further studies are required. Also, the extent to which gaming may be an avoidance strategy for dealing with real problems is also something that needs to be examined.

It is in the field of cognitive development (memory, spatial skills, problem solving, planning) that most gaming research has focussed. Interestingly, studies have found that only shooter games, and not puzzle or role-playing games, have shown benefits to participants. These cognitive enhancements are likely to result from a visually complex, "three-dimensional space and the fast-paced demands that require split-second decision-making and acute attention to unpredictable changes in context", according to Granic and co-authors.

In the real world, some of this may be evident in how "digital natives", such as our young adult children, solve simple problems. Take the "sat nav", which I still can't operate despite multiple readings of the instruction book (the linear approach) - my sons go through a series of activities involving the screen at the same time as they talk through each action to themselves (the trial-and-error approach). Their approach has never failed.

In the field of health, "serious games" are being developed to promote health and adherence to treatment. This remarkable development is underpinned by a peer-reviewed publication Games for Health journal.

The video game, 'Re-Mission', is designed for children with cancer. By allowing the player to control a "nanobot", who shoots cancer cells, overcomes infections, and manages signs of nausea and constipation (common barriers to treatment adherence in cancer patients), the game sought to teach children how best to adhere to their cancer treatments. In a trial involving 34 treatment centres, those exposed to the game showed significantly better treatment adherence than a control group who played another game.

Most of my generation view gaming as dangerous and socially de-skilling, but in time, more informed judgements will be made about its benefits and harms. For now, we should forego any definitive view and await further evidence.

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