For those that remember, video games have come a long way since Pong. What’s behind all those flashing lights and blips that keeps us playing for so long? Believe it or not, there many scientific explanations behind the video game craze. Also, we’ll look at how video games can sometimes be dangerous and even highly beneficial.
Why Do We Play Games?
Before we understand why video games are so popular, it helps to understand why humans like to play games in general. According to child psychologists, play is an important part of growing up. It’s not just for fun. Play also has a role in normal cognitive development. Part of the reason is that play prepares children for the mental and physical challenges of adult life. It’s like practicing to be grown up.
According to the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health, “Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity and physical, cognitive and emotional strength. Play is important to healthy brain development.” Just look at what kids like to play. Whether it’s “house” or “cops & robbers,” many play themes are simply acting out adult scenarios.
Now, this may explain why children play games, but what about adults? It seems that the desire to play is hardwired into our minds at a young age. This partially explains why, even as adults, we love games, including sports.
What Is a Game?
A game typically involves some kind of contest or interaction with another player around a set of established goals. Now, some might say we get enough of this in life; however, it’s hard to know all the rules of life and whether you are winning or losing. Plus, your goals might change over time. Finally, games offer a sense of satisfaction or closure since there are a winner and loser. Still, this satisfaction could be something negative, which we’ll see later.
Fast, easy to achieve and understandable rewards are the hallmarks of games. When we compare this to the uncertainty of life, it reveals the attraction of games. You might ask, “Is my business partner really on my side?” However, when it comes to a game of chess, your own bishop can’t kill you. So, games allow us to enter into a situation with an unknown outcome, but within clearly defined parameters. The result is a sense of control and surprise at the same time.
When video games first entered the scene in the early 1970s, few knew how big the industry would become. According to SuperData Research the worldwide gaming industry hit $91 billion in 2016; so there’s no doubt as to the popularity of video games.
If we return to the reasons why games, in general, are so popular, we see why video games are such a huge hit. The sense of satisfaction when a game ends, especially if you win, feels good. However, compared to video games, other games take time to set up and play. A video game, on the other hand, can be very visually stimulating, complex and rewarding in a short period of time. Set up and replay all happen with the simple push of a button.
A Break or Escape from Reality?
Another reason we love video games is that they offer a quick escape from the pressures of life. Playtime distractions help clear your head and may even relieve stress. However, video game recreation can be a double-edged sword. For instance, if gaming begins to interfere with life responsibilities, then you have other issues besides a simple need for recreation.
The most extreme examples can occur with those who participate in role-playing games where they feel successful. The problem is that this may take the place of self-fulfillment in real life. If the satisfaction in the gaming world is much greater, some may fall into a gaming addiction that closely resembles drug addiction.
Beyond just being fun and attractive, is there a biochemical explanation behind video game popularity? This is exactly what Alan Reiss at Stanford University investigated in his study of 22 college students. Brain activation scans showed that key areas of the medial forebrain “pleasure circuit” lit up when the students played video games. While both sexes showed activation in these regions while playing, the effect was significantly stronger in men.
The research also confirmed that pleasure circuit activation is rapid and repeated, much like what occurs when smoking cigarettes. Other video game studies using positron emission tomography (PET) scanning have shown an increased release of dopamine while players moved to higher game levels.
Given the success of video games, the trend has been to gamify traditionally nongame areas to increase engagement. For example, even healthcare apps have a game-like quality to them since you can win rewards for completing certain tasks (follow diet) or exercises.
Social media platforms are gamified since people like to accumulate likes and shares on their accounts. This is a kind of competition toward a specific goal. Even liking or sharing can produce a chemical effect in the brain since it makes you feel like you are doing something kind or useful. According to social psychologists, getting likes and shares make you feel like you’re getting a hug or smile — all of which trigger pleasure centers in the brain.
Benefits vs. Risks
Given the potential for addiction, there has been a lot of scrutiny around video games. It appears that people can become addicted to the games, and there are even video game detox centers to treat this problem.
According to the Center for Online Addiction, warning signs for video game addiction include:
- Playing for increasing amounts of time
- Thinking about gaming during other activities
- Gaming to escape from real-life problems, anxiety or depression
- Lying to friends and family to conceal gaming
- Feeling irritable when trying to cut down on gaming
However, video games have also been shown to have surprising benefits, even educational ones. For instance, research is mounting that shows long-lasting positive effects of video games on basic mental processes, such as perception, attention, memory and decision-making.
Some of this research is quite compelling. For example, video games may improve performance for jobs that require good eye-hand coordination, attention, memory and quick decision-making. One study showed that gamers were better than nongamers in piloting drones. Video gamers were even as good as formally trained pilots. Other research showed that inexperienced surgeons who were also avid video gamers could outperform experienced surgeons.
Some argue that intelligent people tend to like video games in general. However, studies were also done on nongamers, and improvements in skills occur when people play video games for the first time in their lives.
Harder Is Better
The complexity of video games has exploded in recent years. To solve some games, it takes a tremendous amount of time and concentration. In fact, there’s a subgenre of video games that are intentionally made to be hyper-difficult. These games appear to tap into something referred to as “intrinsic motivation,” which drives you toward a goal without any guarantee of reward other than progress in the game.
One of the ways game developers attract players to these complex games is to ease them into it. As players play, they are coached while playing to learn moves and techniques. This offers another highly motivational reward: a sense of competence. Psychologists and educators are looking more into how video games could be used for teaching and training purposes.
Back to Life
As the games get more complex, and the rewards become less defined, the question comes up: How much different is this than life? With the advent of virtual reality, one also has to ask: Will we blur the division of reality and games to the point where we won’t know which is which?
For now, this Matrix-like scenario is far away. So, enjoy your video games as they might even be good for you. Just don’t overdo it.
Cognitive Benefits of Playing Video Games. (2015, February 20). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201502/cognitive-benefits-playing-video-games
Takahashi, D. (2016, December 21). Worldwide game industry hits $91 billion in revenues in 2016, with mobile the clear leader. Retrieved from https://venturebeat.com/2016/12/21/worldwide-game-industry-hits-91-billion-in-revenues-in-2016-with-mobile-the-clear-leader/
The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. (2007, January 1). Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182
Video Game Addiction. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/features/video-game-addiction-no-fun#1
Video Games Can Activate the Brain’s Pleasure Circuits. (2011, October 25). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-compass-pleasure/201110/video-games-can-activate-the-brains-pleasure-circuits-0
Who Do We Play Games? [Video file]. (2013, March 23). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=e5jDspIC4hY