Opinion: video games offer a quick, convenient and easy way to be social, competitive and to challenge our brains

Published on RTE, Wednesday, 8 Apr 2020

By Niall RamsbottomAdam Toth and Mark CampbellUniversity of Limerick

During this period of quarantine and physical distancing, it is important for us all to keep in touch with those closest to us and to keep our minds active while confined to our homes. Video games are a perfect means of achieving this by offering a quick and convenient way of connecting with friends and family to be social, competitive and to challenge our brains. Video games are now more socially engaging than ever with over two billion gamers worldwide, ranging from casual mobile gamers to elite esport professionals. With the strict physical distancing restrictions in place, video games can help us to reduce the effects of social distancing.

Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has very recently encouraged people to play video games in a growing movement to unite people around the world while keeping their distance to reduce the burden on healthcare systems and ultimately save lives. Previously, the WHO had labelled video games as a "disorder"

Despite the common misconception that video games are for kids, video games have been shown to benefit people of all ages. In fact, the average age of gamers today is 35 with people playing a vast range of different games including favourites like Fortnite and League of Legends to retro classics such as Super Mario Brothers.

The beauty of video games is that they don’t require people to be highly skilled to reap some of the benefits as many games often adapt to the skill level of the gamer and place them with gamers of similar skill ability in a competitive environment. While some games promote intense competition and require prolonged periods of concentration, games like the recently released Islanders on the Steam gaming platform have been designed to be less competitive and more immersive and relaxing.

What are some of the social benefits?

Video games have become increasingly social in recent times with over 70% of gamers reporting playing with a friend cooperatively or competitively. The opportunity for social interaction while playing video games is also facilitated by the fact that many games are played online and can have millions of monthly players, such as League of Legends which has over 110 million monthly players.

Cooperation with team mates is also very important for several games such as Fortnite, therefore requiring gamers to develop social skills and prosocial behaviour that may generalise beyond the gaming environment. A study found that children who played more prosocial games at the beginning of the school year were more likely to display helpful behaviours throughout and later that year.

Video gaming is also one of the only environments where avid amateur gamers can directly play as well as engage with their favourite professional gamers through streaming services such as Twitch. In fact, the success of gaming streaming services has made them more popular than NetflixHBOESPN and Hulu combined. The streaming platform allows professional gamers from all over the world to easily engage with fans in chat sections that are safely managed by moderators.

It is also worth noting that several recent studies have dispelled the misconception that violent video games lead to violent behaviour. Despite years of research and a large amount of studies, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that video game violence lead to real-life violence, something which may be a relief to parents.

How video games are good for your brain

Recent work from the Esports Science Research Lab at Lero has shown video gaming can promote a wide range of cognitive skills (the core skills the brain uses to think, learn, remember and pay attention). This is particularly true for a specific genre of video games known as action video games, which include games like Call of Duty, League of Legends and Fortnite. In comparison to those who don’t play video games regularly, habitual action video game players show enhanced attention, memory, information processing and task-switching cognitive abilities.

Research has also shown that training non-gamers using action video games for a period of time can improve cognitive performance in comparison to not gaming. These training benefits have shown to last over an extended period and these benefits are available to both young and older populations, with studies showing adults aged 60 to 77 years of age who played a complex video game for as little as two weeks could improve important cognitive abilities like memory. As a result, gaming has the potential to promote engagement and an active mind for individuals isolated during the current coronavirus pandemic.

Video games and mental health

Research also highlights key mental health benefits of playing video games, finding that they promote positive emotions, positive functioning and positive social functioning. All of these benefits lead to enhanced mental health and wellbeing. This can be achieved by playing short and simple games such as Angry Birds.

Some studies have even reported lower levels of depressed mood in those who play video games versus those who don’t. Action video games have also been shown to significantly reduce rumination in people with depression.

Overall, video games can play a role in boosting our mood, particularly due to heightened levels of depression and anxiety during this period of uncertainty. The ability of video games to help the player to escape from life’s stressors, even for a short period, may be more relevant than ever during this pandemic. Of course, benefits will depend on the extent to which people engage with the game but we encourage everyone at home to give it a try.  

Niall Ramsbottom is a Research Assistant in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department at University of Limerick and at the Lero Esports Science Research LabDr Adam Toth is a Research Fellow in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department at University of Limerick and the manager of Esports Science in the Lero Esports Science Research LabDr Mark Campbell is a senior lecturer in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department at University of Limerick and the Director of the Lero Esport Science Research Lab. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee.