The surprising health benefits of this ‘lazy’ pastime

By Alistair Gardiner
Published May 4, 2021

Key Takeaways

To say video gaming is popular would be an understatement—an estimated 164 million Americans play video games. And, believe it or not, most of them are adults. A recent survey found that just 21% of US gamers are under the age of 18.

Gaming has long-held associations with basement-dwelling under-achievers, poor health, gaming addiction, and even aggression. However, some studies suggest that video games can offer some unexpected benefits to mental health and cognitive function. Here’s an overview of some of the potential psychological and physiological impacts of video games, according to the most recent studies and health experts. 

Video games and emotional well-being

Despite decades of video gaming in popular culture, research on its impact has been limited by a number of factors. This was pointed out in a new study out of Oxford University, published in Royal Society Open Science in February, which sought to understand whether gaming is associated with greater well-being.

Researchers note that there is very little solid evidence on the positive or negative outcomes of playing video games. Most studies have depended on self-reported data.

“Recent evidence suggests self-reports of digital behaviours are notoriously imprecise and biased, which limits the conclusions we can draw from research on time spent on video games and well-being,” the authors wrote. Moreover, researchers have primarily focused on excessive or problematic video game use.

In the Oxford study, researchers collaborated with games companies Electronic Arts and Nintendo of America to obtain players’ actual play behavior. Investigators retrieved survey responses from a cohort of players of two video games—471 players of Plants vs Zombies: Battle for Neighborville and 2,756 players of Animal Crossing: New Horizons—and collected telemetry data over a 2-week study period, which confirmed how much time each subject spent gaming. Survey queries included questions such as the number of negative and positive feelings participants had over the past 2 weeks.  

Researchers came up with a hypothesis based on self-determination theory, which states that “any activity whose affordances align with the motivations of people will contribute to their well-being.” The study introduction notes that if an activity satisfies the “basic psychological needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy,” it can contribute to greater feelings of well-being. The researchers predicted that playing video games could fall into this category. 

The authors wrote, “Contrary to many fears that excessive play time will lead to addiction and poor mental health, we found a small positive relation between game play and affective well-being” for both games.  

“We did not find evidence that this relation was moderated by need satisfactions and motivations, but that need satisfaction and motivations were related to well-being in their own right,” they continued. “Overall, our findings suggest that regulating video games, on the basis of time, might not bring the benefits many might expect, though the correlational nature of the data limits that conclusion.”

A review published in Frontiers in Psychology analyzed the findings of 35 studies on the emotional and cognitive impacts of video gaming and came to a surprising conclusion: Some types of video games appear to have a positive effect on the cognitive and emotional skills of healthy US adults. 

“Overall, findings give evidence of benefits of video games training on cognitive and emotional skills in relation to the healthy adult population, especially on young adults,” the authors wrote. “Efficacy has been demonstrated not only for non-commercial video games or commercial brain-training programs, but for commercial video games as well.”

The researchers focused on evidence on the impacts of gaming on cognition—specifically processing speed and reaction times, memory, tasking switching/multitasking, and mental spatial rotation—as well as on emotional skills. 

They found evidence that playing physically active video games (AVGs), like those on the Nintendo Wii, at a “self-selected intensity” can positively influence emotional responses. The authors noted that commercial video games have been tested as a tool for Stress Management Training and that horror-based video games in particular, in combination with arousal reduction strategies, have demonstrated efficacy in improving soldiers’ resilience to stress. Other types of video games have been shown to help those with anxiety handle emotional and psychological responses to stressors, and improve the performance of female subjects during anxiety-related tasks.

The authors cited a number of studies that found video games can trigger positive emotions, and that some could be used in the training of emotional skills, like self-regulation habits. For example, one study found that playing Tetris, characterized as having “low cognitive loads and generally short time demands,” can promote positive emotions and general relaxation. Other, more challenging video games require players to unlearn previously used strategies and learn to adapt to new situations without frustration and anxiety.

That said, the authors noted that the number of studies focused on the positive emotional impacts of gaming are few and far between compared with those that looked at cognitive training. 

Video games, physical activity, and cognitive function

Of course, video game play is typically sedentary, and sedentary behavior has documented negative health effects. However, not all video games are sedentary. In fact, for those who find the treadmill boring, "exergaming" can be a fun way to exercise, with some studies showing a strong correlation between exergaming and increased energy expenditure.

Another study, published in Scientific Reports, examined the health impacts of AVGs with a narrative element, using a cohort of 110 individuals aged 18-25. 

Researchers randomly split the cohort into four groups: narrative-AVG, non-narrative-AVG, narrative sedentary video games, and non-narrative sedentary video games. All participants completed sustained attention and memory tasks before and after a 30-minute gaming session, during which they were physically monitored.

The study found that both AVG groups achieved a moderate-intensity level of physical activity. Interestingly, the narrative-AVG group recorded higher step counts and spent more time doing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, compared with the non-narrative AVG group. Adding narrative to an AVG resulted in an average of 23% more steps and 11% more time spent doing moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. Additionally, researchers found that both AVG groups performed better in the memory task compared with the two SVG groups.

The aforementioned Scientific Reports review also found a plethora of evidence indicating that video games can positively impact certain cognitive functions. For example, video games that require the use of complex strategies can enhance the cognitive flexibility of older adults, and a range of different types of games (first-person-shooters, adventure games, and puzzle games) showed efficacy as training tools for processing speeds and reaction times. In addition, some games can significantly improve visuospatial working memory, visuospatial learning, and focused attention in adult players.

Research has also indicated that even sedentary video gaming doesn’t necessarily result in the couch potato stereotype. A review published in BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine analyzed the evidence on the physical health consequences of playing video games in healthy gamers. 

Researchers examined the findings of 12 peer-reviewed studies and concluded that, while there is preliminary evidence that more gaming time is associated with higher BMI and lower self-reported general health, findings for other negative health outcomes remain equivocal. They found insufficient evidence to draw any conclusions regarding associations between gaming time and physical activity or sedentary behaviors, sleep or fatigue, or dietary behaviors. 

Dangers of excessive gaming

While there may be some benefits to moderate levels of gaming, too much time spent on video games can result in poor outcomes. According to Harvard Health, excessive gaming may lead to consequences ranging from carpal tunnel syndrome, vision problems, and obesity, to psychological issues, such as sleep deprivation, insomnia, circadian rhythm disorders, depression, aggression, and anxiety.

While additional studies are needed to validate these outcomes, the American Psychiatric Association considers video game addiction a concern. And, in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), the WHO included “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition categorized under addictive behavior disorders. 

Signs of internet gaming disorder include: loss of interest in other activities; downplaying video game use; loss of relationship, educational, or career opportunities; and continued gaming despite psychosocial problems.  

Bottom line

More research is needed, but video gaming appears to have some positive impacts on certain brain functions and well-being. The key is moderation. If you can integrate your video game habit into an otherwise healthy lifestyle, then game on.

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