Gamers have gotten a bad rap for a long time, but now, science supports the notion than gaming might actually be better for you than books!
7 Reasons Video Games Might Be Better for You Than Books
- Helps you quit smoking
- Help reduce pain
- Help reclaim control of your memory
- Reduce Anxiety
- Motivate you to exercise
- Help fight depression
- Help make you more resistant / optimistic
Helps You Quit Smoking
When we play games, we devote a special quality of mental attention that activities like reading or watching TV often don’t demand. Games demand full engagement—and when our brains are fully engaged, incredible things can happen.
A 2014 study conducted jointly by Brown University, the American Cancer Society and Stony Brook University found that smokers deprived of nicotine could reduce their cravings simply by playing two-player games or solving puzzles with their romantic partners.
But how? According to MRI scans of the participating couples’ brains, teamwork and puzzle solving activated the exact same reward centers as nicotine does. Many games—especially the casual mobile variety—are designed to offer persistent rewards for completing challenges (ie think of the satisfying visual and sound effects when you obliterate a row of tiles in Candy Crush). So, the next time you feel a craving: reward yourself with a game first.
Games Reduce Pain
Games offer players a break from reality. In one experiment at the University of Washington Harborview Burn Center, patients undergoing treatment for severe burns were given virtual reality headsets to play a game called Snow World, allowing them to explore an immersive 3-D landscape of hidden ice caves, jolly snowmen, and a pleasant dusting of snowflakes even as caregivers provided painful wound treatments. Patients who played Snow World reported being able to ignore the pain 92% of the time, while those who didn’t typically spent 100 percent of treatment thinking about their own suffering. What’s more, Snow World patients felt an average of 30% – 50% in total pain reduction, providing even greater relief than morphine.
Scientists say this works due to what’s called the “spotlight theory of attention,” suggesting that our brains work like a spotlight able to focus on a limited amount of information at a time. When our cognitive resources are focused on a mentally-demanding game (say, Candy Crush or Temple Run on your phone), we have less attention to give external stimuli like smells, sounds, and even pain.
Games Help You Reclaim Control Of Your Memory
Engaging your brain with a challenging puzzle not only helps ease immediate physical pain, but also helps control painful recollections of past trauma. For proof of this we turn to a series of Oxford University studies around everyone’s favorite Russian block-stacking game, Tetris. Study participants were shown a sequence of graphic, gory images in order to simulate post-traumatic stress disorder, then broken off into two groups.
One group played Tetris for ten minutes while the other group did nothing. When they checked in a week later, researchers found that the Tetris group experienced half as many flashbacks of the violent images as the group that did not play, and overall showed significantly fewer symptoms of PTSD. Why does this work? Pattern-matching games like Tetris and Candy Crush occupy the visual processing power of the brain so effectively that involuntary visual memories (flashbacks) are severely disrupted. The Oxford study notes that this is only true of visual-heavy games like Tetris; a more text-based game like Words With Friends would not have this memory-hijacking effect.
Games Reduce Anxiety
Researchers at the New Jersey Medical School’s anesthesiology department found that children who were allowed to play handheld video games before surgery felt virtually no anxiety. What’s more, when they woke from anesthesia after their surgery, game-playing kids felt less than half as much anxiety as the kids who were given medication instead. As with the Tetris and Snow World experiments, this handheld anxiety-reduction is a simple case of shifting the mental spotlight.
Games Motivate You To Exercise
According to research from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction lab, study participants who watched virtual avatars of themselves running on a treadmill reported feeling remarkably higher confidence that they could get in shape, and exercised a full hour longer than participants who merely watched their digital twins stand around onscreen.
VHIL founder Jeremy Bailenson, PhD, says that the avatar experiment offers participants the instant gratification of immediate virtual weight loss. “Working out with a virtual doppelgänger means you can see physical rewards of exercise right away,” he says, “which is something that doesn’t typically happen in the real world. In the real world, it takes days or weeks to notice any positive physical changes.”
Games Help Fight Depression
In a formal survey of PopCap Games (Plants Vs. Zombies, Bejeweled, and Peggle) players, it was found that 77% of players admitted to seeking mental of emotional health benefits from playing, and that casual games were an effective tool for reducing stress, improving mood, and stopping anxiety.
To gain a better understanding why this works, PopCap partnered with biofeedback researchers at East Carolina University to monitor the actual shifts in brain activity experienced by casual players. The results were mind-blowing: After just 20 minutes of playing, gamers simultaneously showed an increased heart-rate variability (tied to reduced stress and higher resilience) and decreased left frontal alpha brain waves (tied to improved mood, which players corroborated on a written survey). Participants who spent their 20 minutes surfing the Internet saw no such improvements in mood or heart-rate.
Games Make You More Resistant / Optimistic
Anyone who has ever picked up a controller knows that “game over” is a temporary state of being. A team of 25 scientists from Europe and North America recently reported that people who play nine or more hours of video games every week have higher gray matter volume in the reward-processing area of their brains.
Neuroscientist Judy Willis, MD, explains, “When you have constant opportunities to try different strategies and get feedback, you get more frequent and more intense bursts of dopamine… not only do you get minute-to-minute pleasure, but the mindset starts changing in long-term ways. Your brain adapts to seek out more challenge, to be less afraid of failure, and to be more resilient in the face of setbacks.”
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Don Patrick is an amateur writer and sports enthusiast. He loves reading books, listening to the Huberman Lab Podcast, and spending time with his family and friends. Don is also a personal trainer and youth hockey coach.