Games are a wonderful medium. Like music, literature, film and theatre, games do a great deal to help make life worth living. In Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde said, “All art is quite useless.” He said this to illustrate that yes, art has little to no practical value. That does not mean that art is of no benefit to anyone of course! For me, the same argument can be applied to games, as their entertainment value is enough to justify their existence.
Critics of games however are full of concerns about violence, addiction and distractions from what the establishment regards as “more meaningful” pursuits. These being reading, watching films or punching someone in the face in a bar…
Satirical side swipes aside, perhaps you’re reading this because you’re bewildered over this new form of entertainment yourself; or maybe you are someone who enjoys games and would like to explain some of their benefits—beyond entertainment—to a parent, a teacher, a friend or even a reader of the Daily Mail/avid viewer of Fox News. The purpose of this article is to inform you about some of things that are wonderful about games.
#1: Games can make you smarter
Is it a coincidence that “nerds” often possess an interest in computer games, as well as have an aptitude for subjects like maths and science?
When engaged with a game, players must rely upon inference rather than direct questioning.
Research is mounting that playing games can make you smarter. This is not isolated to the purely education titles, either! In Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Steven Johnson presents a large amount of information on how the mind explores games the same way one conducts science experiments. This is done by exploring rules and determining what works. To illustrate further, you don’t put your hand in the aforementioned fire anymore because you know from experience that it results in third-degree burns. It’s that type of thinking that teaches people to think about the world in better ways (especially when it comes to the incompatibility between one’s own hand and a fire).
#2: Games can excite people for high-paying careers
I first became interested in programming computers because I wanted to program my own games. This is hardly unique, of course. A huge number of engineers, designers and artists have taken up their careers because of the excitement they gained from their exposure to games. Games challenge the imagination, and designing them is a fun and rewarding experience.
The joys of making video games and and the skills one gains when creating them can be used in a wide range of places. The game industry itself is a large and growing marketplace for these skills—but the same skills can also be applied across the even larger software engineering, Internet and media-based industries.
This hasn’t been lost on the Obama Administration, which is including educational games in a $260mm program to support science, technology, engineering and math education. Part of this includes challenging kids to design games, which involves problem solving within art design, user interaction, mathematics and computer science.
It is often said that playing video games improves one’s hand-eye coordination. This is a very important skill to have outside the realm of video games, as more and more tools and equipment are controlled remotely. By way of example, Dr. Rosser is an MD who conducted research on whether playing games could help someone become a better surgeon (it does—a lot). He’s since found that the immersive and engaging nature of games could also help get kids interested in math and science.
#3 Games Inspire Tangential Learning
Greek Mythology. The Roman Empire. Astronomy. Mathematics. Spreadsheets. The history of technology and how not to speak ye-olde-Englishe.
These are just a few well-known examples where games have gotten people excited about learning something new. I’m not just talking about educational games, either! I’m citing what some would regard as purely entertaining games like Age of Empires, Civilization and World of Warcraft (WoW). These games don’t make education their core purpose. Nevertheless, there is evidence that people do learn new things they might never have, just by playing these games.
Simply by presenting the player with opportunities to discover interesting ideas that they may not have otherwise come across you are setting the groundwork for learning.
Another example can be found at ElitistJerks.com, where the “nerdiness” (I use the term in the spirit of camaraderie!) of playing WoW directly intersects with the study of applied mathematics. Nearly a million people per month converge on ElitistJerks to read about and debate the mathematics behind WoW. They often apply sophisticated spreadsheets and statistical models to reach their conclusions. For many people, it’s their first exposure to formal applied mathematics. Scan their analysis of Rogue Damage Per Second, with its well-researched tables, proofs and statistics. If only my gradeschool teachers had come up with something this engaging to get me interested in in the almost impenetrable world of mathematics! From the above studies it becomes clear now how mathematics are essential to the study of vast, complex systems. For this is exactly what the people behind ElitistJerks are trying to fathom; patterns in a game.
#4 Games can enhance creativity
Academic research has shown that games can increase the feelings that lead to creativity. From a paper by Elizabeth Hutton and Shyam Sundar titled “Can Video Games Enhance Creativity? An Experimental Investigation of Emotion Generated by Dance Dance Revolution“:
Our findings suggest that the emotions generated when interacting in [video and computer games…and on social spaces like YouTube, Facebook and Second Life] can be quite influential in fostering creative expression, as has already been noted on several shared online spaces such as blogs and other online applications designed to showcase one’s creative work.
Furthermore, games themselves are becoming an increasingly creative medium. Take a look at LittleBigPlanet, where you can design your own levels, or Spore, where you can design your own creatures. Many games also feature active modding communities, where people use sophisticated tools to design their own levels in first-person shooters like the Battlefield series or in fantasy-roleplaying games like Neverwinter Nights.
Games even inspire creativity outside of the game. Fan fiction, fan art — even the organization of guilds and clans — are all examples of games as creative catalysts. Machinima is another new and emerging art form which depends on games and 3D worlds to provide the environment for animation. MIT Professor Henry Jenkins has written about how games provide a venue for expression that does not exist in other types of art and media–we’re still at the very beginning of games as a means of artistic and creative expression.
#5 Games can foster advanced social skills
Multiplayer games require people to coordinate activities in ways that exist in armies and businesses, and there’s evidence that the social and management skills one learns from these experiences are helping in the real world. Marc Prensky has studied how children learn to cooperate in multiplayer games. His analysis is validated in research such as the investigation of the social and civics interests of teen videogame players funded by the MacArthur Foundation:
Our findings conflict with a commonly held perspective that youth who play video games are socially isolated and often antisocial. We also found no evidence to support scholars’ concerns that young people involved in the Internet (in this case by playing video games) are less civically engaged.
Furthermore, the study found that teens who are exposed to civics within games (e.g., city-simulators like SimCity, or running a guild/clan in other games) are more likely than other teens to be interested in political and civics activities.
Eve Online is another game where players are learning real economics and business skills, and Nick Yee found that many younger players report becoming more comfortable with face-to-face communication after playing MMORPGs.
The politics, organization and coordination of multiplayer games are complex. The ability to apply these skills at a young age often lay the groundwork for one’s success later in life, and for many people their first and most-compelling exposure to these skills is multiplayer gaming.
#6 Games could help end war
Games are often accused of promoting violence. Such claims have been repeatedly debunked after extensive research, so it is an irony that games could actually lead to an end to war. [2011 edit: here's another more up-to-date research paper: Evidence for publication bias in video game violence effects literature.]
The Olympics were originally conceived of as a way to end war. However, it’s really about the skills of elite athletes, and it’s rife with nationalism. Despite this, the original thinking behind the Olympics was sound. It was and is an effort to bring together people from different cultures, and allow them to learn about each other.
Unlike any other medium, games gets different people from different countries, political views and religions all playing together. Not because they are elite; not because they’re spectators, but because you must work together to solve problems.
I’m convinced that the more we play together, the more we’ll learn to live with each other. It’s something I’ve spoken about in the past:
Games are fun, and that’s enough for me. Maybe it isn’t enough for you—or for your friends or for your family. I hope you the information I’ve presented is helpful to you in explaining many of the other positives about games. Not only are games fun, but they’re also healthy, and can promote positive brain development, career opportunity and social behavior.
I’m on a mission. These are stories that the game industry hasn’t been good at explaining. If you agree, please share with your friends. Tweet about this on Twitter and start conversations; link to it from your blog and provide your own thoughts; or start discussions here or elsewhere.
(Note from Jon: I’d like to thank the many, many Twitter followers who contributed thoughts and suggestions for this article. In particle, I’d also like to acknowledge Chris “Kropotkin” O’Regan of the SuperHappyFunTimeShow for his excellent edits!)