The Benefits of Video Games

Understanding the role that video games have in a child’s life not only clears space for parents and carers to guide them towards healthy habits but uncovers the benefits that video games have to offer.
Children aren’t stupid. They don’t play video games just because they’re exciting, easy to access and what their friends are doing. They play because of a range of benefits that, being children, they can’t fully articulate.

Listening to how my kids (now 11, 14 and 16 years old) talk about video games is like a foreign language. Even when they were younger I didn’t understand everything they said, but the bits I did understand were often surprising and fascinating.

They rarely talk about how thrilling games are or how amazing they look. Instead, they tell me how good it is to escape the day for a while and find some order. They light up, discussing the excitement of thinking deeply about new strategies and then being able to perfect them. Their friends come up in these chats in the same way they do when describing the latest playground game. They talk about support and advice they get from more experienced players. And when I still look confused, they take me by the hand and show me video clips of their victories, web pages they’re using to research strategies, and other players they watch online.

I love these conversations. They are a rare opportunity to hear the inner workings of my children’s hearts and minds. Not just what they are getting from the games they play, but how these experiences sit within the rest of their life.

Playing games with our children moves the conversation beyond them explaining their games to us as an outsider, to the easy candour of a shared experience. Taking the step of playing together while you talk brings a further understanding as guards are dropped and more is revealed about why your child loves this game.

This creates a powerful context for children to benefit from the games they play. By being interested and present in our children’s gaming, we can stitch these experiences – the thinking, conversations and interactions that come with them, the ‘infinity group’ as Gee calls it – into family life.
In the past, game-positive voices have suggested benefits from gaming such as transferable skills and cognitive advancement. But there is mixed evidence for whether hard skills like hand–eye coordination, problem-solving or quick reactions transfer to other parts of life. What’s more, looking to these secondary aspects of video gaming to justify the time spent on it misunderstands what video games really have to offer – like justifying the time spent gazing at a beautiful painting based on what it teaches you about history, or enthusing about a novel because of the words you learned.

The real benefit of video games is found in the innate nature of the games themselves. Games are a new media that we are only just starting to understand. But as we scratch the surface of what video games are, as I do in more depth in Chapter 6, we start to get a better picture of what these benefits look like.

Games create an endless variety of spaces to play in. They can be deeply social or intricately complex, they can challenge you with competition or collaboration, let you escape yourself, confront you with questionable decisions you’ve made, frustrate your best efforts; or even soothe you into relaxation and calm. Sometimes they can do many of these things all at once. ‘Games are where I can unfold,’ is how my daughter describes it.

Then there are the benefits that arise as ‘collateral learning’, as Johnson puts it, from the hard work required to succeed. ‘Games force you to decide, to choose, to prioritize. All the intellectual benefits of gaming derive from this fundamental virtue, because learning how to think is ultimately about learning to make the right decisions: weighing evidence, analyzing situations, consulting your long-term goals, and then deciding.’

My children’s school homework books display a diagram of a compass. It’s split into four areas: wisdom, community, compassion and courage. For wisdom it lists planning, making links, being methodical and questioning. For community it lists collaboration, humility, forgiveness and reflective learning. In courage it lists possibilities, perseverance, considered risks and integrity. In compassion it lists generosity, reflection, self-control and thankfulness.
I recently realised that many, if not all, of these things are what I see my children develop or practise in the video games they play. In this way, games produce results which we usually presume can only be achieved in our homes, schools, libraries, sports centres, community halls, churches, synagogues and mosques. Games nurture children’s character as much as their motor skills.
Over the years, in my work with parents of avid gamers, I’ve kept a list of the benefits they start to see from the games their children play. This list has grown quite long, and of course isn’t exhaustive, but I hope it sparks something for you about the previously hidden benefits of your child’s gaming

Character Benefits

Social Benefits

Well-being Benefits

Intuition Benefits

Intellectual Benefits

Beyond these individual qualities that games offer children, it’s when encountering them as a whole that they really reveal their full potential. Like books, films and theatre, there’s something magical about them that only happens with the sum of their parts.

Games are beneficial because they offer a new way to look at the world. The novelist Jeanette Winterson could have been writing about video games in her book Art Objects: ‘We need to look at the experience of the piece. The riskiness of art, the reason why it affects us, is not the riskiness of its subject matter, it is the risk of a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking. It does this by overturning the habits and conventions of previous generations.’

Video games at their best are like this. Wild, unpredictable, fragile and risky. They are the medium of our time, which we have yet to fully embrace. As Winterson describes art, they are the emotional and psychic resonance of our world, ‘a living, breathing, winding movement that flows out of the past and into the future while making its unique present’.

Being blindsided by the overwhelming emotion of losing your adoptee in My Child Lebensborn, being frustrated by your lack of deduction in Return of the Obra Dinn, finding something true about your own daughter in Ellie from The Last of Us or watching in horror as your lovingly planned subway fails in Mini Metro; games are not always what we expect or want them to be. But, as with poetry, music and paintings, when we take time to play video games we are, as Winterson puts it, ‘clearing a space for new stories about ourselves’.

We discover not only new ways to laugh, compete and giggle with our kids, but new ways to see the world. From tiny puzzles to grandiose landscapes, the spaces that video games create invite us to investigate and overhear stories in completely new ways. I’m getting better at noticing how we learn from video games. But by playing together, the real benefit is what we learn about ourselves and our children.

This article was first published in the Taming Gaming book.

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The information on this database is designed to support and complement the in-depth discussion and advice about video game "addiction", violence, spending and online safety in the Taming Gaming book. If you have any concerns or questions in these areas, email our editor who is quick to respond or can arrange for a one-to-one conversation.

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