Going as far back as the days of Pong and Space Invaders, there have been questions about whether video games have a positive or negative influence on a child’s development and overall well being. Unfortunately, much of the historical dialog around the topic has been about gaming’s contribution to mental and physical problems—despite a lack of scientific evidence to validate these concerns. Thankfully, professionals are now increasingly conducting studies to uncover the truth. While this research is emergent and isn’t yet conclusive, researchers are finding that digital games can be very beneficial to our social, emotional, physical, and cognitive health. It may be time to shift our decades-running mindset that videos games are bad for our children (and for ourselves), and embrace their plurality of positive benefits. 

Contrary to common perception, games can promote healthy living and increased social activity. Through a variety of ways they benefit us cognitively, physically, and socially-emotionally. At Learnfully, games allow us to establish a strong rapport with our learners, strengthen underlying sensory-cognitive skills and create positive associations to learning through play. For example, we may start an instructional session playing a memory game—which kick-starts learning and increases their overall receptivity to the subsequent activities in the lesson plan. Games can also help those who struggle with social anxiety make connections and lifelong relationships. Importantly, they help us find joy by pursuing our interests in a variety of ways. They also have many positive impacts on critical thinking skills. Access to consoles like the Nintendo Switch or Wii can promote a better lifestyle, keeping someone active, socially engaged, and entertained at the same time. 

As with any other activity, it’s important to optimize the benefits of gaming and not abuse the medium by engaging in it to excess. Maintaining a routine to limit the amount of screentime and review the content of the games your child plays is key to ensuring they attain the positive benefits of the medium. There will always cause for concern when it comes to emerging gaming spaces (yesterday it was online gaming, today it’s the metaverse, tomorrow… who knows) because so much is unknown. With your oversight as a parent or caregiver, your learner can benefit from these ten boosts to social-emotional, cognitive, and physical skills. Hopefully this article will help us rethink our mindset on video gaming and shift our attention to the positive things it can bring into our learners’ lives. 

1. Mental Health

WebMD clearly states, “There are many misconceptions about video games and the impact they have on mental health. The truth is that video games have many benefits, including developing complex problem-solving skills and promoting social interaction through online gaming. Video games can be a great way to stimulate your mind and improve your mental health.” There has been a clear uptick in mental health diagnoses since the onset of the pandemic, particularly in teenagers. During this same time video games have been making a tremendous impact on learner engagement and responsiveness to therapy. SPARX, a game specifically designed to provide therapy to teenagers in a way that’s more active and enjoyable than regular counseling, has helped many families achieve drastic results due to the way it engages and more fully brings teenagers into the therapy experience.. Playing video games helps develop interpersonal skills, boosts a sense of accomplishment, and develops the ability to perform under pressure. Practitioners have also developed games that support mood, mindfulness, growth mindset, and self-regulation: it’s evident the gaming revolution in the mental health world has begun. 

2. Social Skills 

Many neurodivergent learners struggle with social anxiety and feel isolated and alone. To counteract this, some video games explicitly target the need to develop social skills by facilitating discussions, encouraging initiation and conversational discourse in a safe space. For instance, Social Cipher is the perfect example of a fun-filled, systematic social-emotional game that explicitly strengthens the five core social-emotional competencies through an autistic learner’s lens. The protagonist, Ava, simulates life as a neurodivergent learner trying to find her way in the communicative world, one social dilemma at a time serving as representation for learners who struggle with social skills. 

The myth of the  reclusive shut-in gamer is far from reality. “Gamers aren’t the antisocial basement-dwellers we see in pop culture stereotypes; they’re highly social people,” Dr. Nick Taylor, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and lead author of the study, said in a school news release. “This won’t be a surprise to the gaming community, but it’s worth telling everyone else. Loners are the outliers in gaming, not the norm.” Games such as Among Us, Fortnite and World of Warcraft strengthen ongoing relationships and spark new friendships through shared interests and collaborative opportunities requiring responsible decision-making. 

3. Decision Making & Problem Solving 

As reported by WebMD, “Action video games are fast-paced, and there are peripheral images and events popping up, and disappearing. These video games are teaching people to become better at taking sensory data in, and translating it into correct decisions.” As a slower-paced game player, I automatically associate action-packed, high-intensity video games as stress-inducing—and this very well may be the case initially —but as a learner acclimates to the game they begin building confidence and neural connections that support their ability to make decisions with urgency. This problem-solving skill generalizes into other environments in and out of the classroom. Other types of games can benefit a learner’s problem solving skills. A study published in 2013 in The American Psychologist found that the as adolescents reported playing more strategic video games (role-playing games, turn-based games etc.) the more they improved in problem solving and school grades the following year.

4. Physical Fitness & Health

Video games also have a positive impact on an individual’s physiological state. Gamifying (using elements of gameplay to engage with a topic or concept) physical fitness increases motivation, leading to more productive exercise . For example, Peloton has created an immersive, gaming-inspired workout called Lanebreak for its community of all ages. Lanebreak inspires its users to engage in a virtual world that builds excitement to develop positive associations to exercise and helps take members’ minds off the more grueling aspects of the workout.. 

The use of video games with medical patients has also grown tremendously. A study published in November 2014 in the journal Radiology reported that 24 MS patients improved their balance and even lessened their risk of falling as a result of playing video games using a Wii balance board, suggesting that other high-intensity, task-oriented exercises could help patients with multiple sclerosis. The game works by having users stand on a balance board while shifting their weight and following the interactive instructions on the screen. Games have also been used alongside treatment to reduce negative side effects. Studies have even shown that when children play video games following chemotherapy they need fewer painkillers than those who don’t.

Not only do video games incentivize health, they also can improve hand-eye coordination, motor planning skills, and visual-spatial skills and perception. University of Oklahoma pediatricians conducted a study to research active video games as an alternative to moderate exercise for children who are sedentary and at high risk for obesity and diabetes. Tests conducted measured the heart rate, self-reported exertion, and energy expenditure of the children while they interacted with games like Dance Dance Revolution and Wii Boxing. The research concluded that overall energy expenditure during active video game play was comparable to moderate-intensity walking. Another study, conducted by University of Rochester,, found that playing action games improves an ability called contrast sensitivity function, which is what helps us discern between changes in shades of gray against a colored backdrop. This is helpful in tasks requiring vision in low light, like driving at night. 

5. Self-discovery & Creative Expression 

Video games give players the opportunity to create, experiment, and leverage the full power of their imagination. Starting with creating their online presence by customizing their  avatar  (the virtual identity a game player assumes online), to expressing their imagination and creativity while playing with friends (or streaming online to others), and on to fanart (fan-created artwork inspired by the game), cosplay (performance art where a performer role plays as a character from a work of fiction), and much more—games offer many opportunities for creative expression. I have witnessed firsthand the incredible opportunity gaming offers in building an individual’s sense of self with my children’s experiences. At first I was apprehensive—I entered the space and brought my own biases, assuming that my children’s social skills were melting away every minute they were gaming online. I was pleasantly surprised to see the strides they made in finding their passions and expressing themselves creatively. A whole new accessible and inclusive world has come alive for my eldest child particularly as they navigate preteen life and search for themself and their identity. I know that it can be scary to send your child into the virtual gaming world; instilling the proper safety precautions in our kids when they go online will help mitigate our fears and help us trust they will turn to us for support when necessary.

6. Memory

Playing action video games increases the amount of gray matter in a person’s brain and promotes better connectivity in the subregions of the brain associated with gray matter functions. Gray matter is important, because its functions include muscle control and sensory perception skills such as seeing and hearing, memory function, and emotion, speech, and decision formation. One of the most noticeable impacts of video games in my children and the learners we serve is how much it has strengthened their working memory. Tried and true working-memory-enhancing games like Simon are now available online. Nintendo’s Rhythm Heaven develops players’ visual and auditory memory through musical experiences and interests. Learners sustain attention for long periods of time because they receive immediate feedback and gratification, further igniting their interests, feelings of productivity, and sense of success. 

Evidence suggests video games may also slow aging’s effects on the brain. As reported by Huffpost, researchers at the University of Iowa found that playing a brain-teasing game for just two hours a week can help slow the degree of mental decline associated with natural aging. Just 10 hours was enough to slow the decline for up to seven years. This benefit was achieved using digitized crossword puzzles and a video game called “Road Tour.”  

7. Cognitive Flexibility 

Certain types of video games can help train the brain to become more agile and improve strategic thinking, according to research conducted by scientists from Queen Mary University of London and University College London (UCL). Researchers noted that while playing the popular strategy game Starcraft, participants were able to manage more information sources, leading to enhancements in cognitive flexibility.” In other words, the people who played the game boasted better cognitive flexibility since the game requires constant thinking and player input. While not all games may offer the same benefit, it’s good to know that at least some of our favorite games, especially real-time strategy games, may be helping us become better learners while entertaining us. 

8. Shifting and Sustaining Attention 

A chief concern among many caregivers today (myself included) is that their kids sit in class thinking about Minecraft and Pokémon instead of listening to their teachers. To determine whether games could help (rather than hinder) learner focus by by improving cognition and perception,  researcher Vikranth Bejjanki conducted several experiments. These studies asked two groups of people, experienced gamers and people who don’t play video games, to perform several perceptual tasks, like pattern discrimination. The gamer group outperformed the non-gamer group. A subsequent study showed that playing videos games for 50 hours increased participants’ capability with perceptual tasks.The paper concluded that playing video games  influences performance in perception, attention, and cognition. Put simply—playing games improves several abilities, including skills related to sustaining and shifting attention. 

9. Application to Learning 

Video games can help expand a player’s knowledge across a variety of subjects including history, geography, science, and foreign languages. A plethora of literacy and math educational games are available online that reinforce learners’ underlying skills, but many of them lack personalization, representation, and that excitement factor—all of which affect a learner’s engagement to the program. Minecraft has been used in the classroom for a decade (and is still going strong). I was personally excited to discover Brainika and use it with one of my children struggling in math. Brainika develops educational games on the population online multiplayer game-creation platform Roblox that help neurodivergent kids intuitively build their math skills..

The son of Brainika’s Founder, Anya (who goes by Anika), was diagnosed with ADHD in 2020. She turned his diagnosis into an opportunity to bring excitement to learning by developing language, coding, and math instruction for the virtual platforms of Minecraft and Roblox. She shared why she chose to develop on Roblox, “it is a great tool for SEND (Special Education Needs and Disabilities, a statutory code from the UK Department of Education) learning, it unlocks kids’ imagination by embodying six core metaverse elements: immersion, virtual identity, digital asset ownership, real-life experiences, social network and creators economy run on digital currency. For educators, Roblox allows limitless creation of educational experiences that students heartily participate in, developing both soft and hard skills.”

10. Goal-directedness

Goal-directedness, or goal-directed behavior, refers simply to the ability to set oneself to the completion of a goal. One of the primary purposes of playing any game is to meet the goal set forth by the game designers. Finding joy and meaning in video games naturally builds a sense of goal-directedness. By setting realistic goals, building a plan to achieve them, and ultimately acting on those plans, children are practicing a recipe for learning success that can be generalized across many tasks and settings. Learner motivation is also critical to learning success. Players are motivated to succeed in games by being given small goals (like leveling up) they can achieve easily. Once they see themselves succeed at this smaller task, they are more inspired to take on bigger goals. This confidence can carry over into a learner’s social, emotional and cognitive skills in learning and life. Reaching goals within games can create a cascade of confidence that supports learners when they apply themselves outside of the medium.