Game On!

Why Angry Birds is good for you and Metal Gear Solid 5 isn’t


Today, a total of three billion hours every week are spent playing video games around the world. Our lust for titles like Destiny, Hearthstone, Crossy Road and FIFA shows no sign of slowing. Which is why experts are looking for ways to use games to teach concepts, boost confidence and even treat illnesses.

It’s all too easy to criticise video games as a waste of time, that they encourage violent behavior or poorly represent women (Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain’s skimpily-dressed Quiet character is a case in point).

Video games can even kill you.

But, as Jane McGonigal points out in her book Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World: “studies show that games benefit us mentally and emotionally when we play up to 3 hours a day, or 21 hours a week.”

The thing is, you might not know that video games are teaching you. Or helping you. They often do so on a subconscious level.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate
History lessons: The Assassin’s Creed games are inspired by key historical periods, from the 11th century Crusades to Victorian London.

For example, video games force us to improve. To be able to advance through a game, you have to “learn” how it works, overcoming obstacles, solving puzzles or beating lap times. If you fail, you often can’t advance. So you learn to try, try again. Different gaming genres pose different challenges and can deliver different benefits.

Let’s take action games. First person shooter (FPS) games are often lambasted for their violent content. But a 2014 study showed that games like Unreal Tournament and Call of Duty can improve eyesight, boost hand-eye coordination and reflexes, not to mention accelerate learning.

The report notes that players were better able to distinguish shades of colours and notice finer details than the control group. They also learned faster.

Call of Duty Black Ops 3
Studies show that FPS games like Call of Duty can improve a player’s reflexes and hand-eye coordination.

Another study from 2010 by the University of Rochester, showed that the regular gamers often made decisions 25% faster than those who didn’t, but with the same precision. Surgeons, pilots, police officers, brokers, drivers and people in difficult situations could all benefit from skills acquired this way.

Another sub-genre of action games are logic-based games, such as the popular Angry Birds or Cut the Rope. Scientists from Nanyang Technological University analysed changes in the abilities of players playing four different logic games and were surprised by the results.

For example, players of Cut the Rope adapted to new situations one third faster than a control group. They tended to focus better, eliminated different distractions with greater ease and were also able to multitask more efficiently.

Grand Theft Auto V
Open world games like GTA V encourage the player to experiment, developing imagination, creativity and problem-solving skills.

“No video games have demonstrated this type of broad improvement to executive functions,” said NTU Assistant Professor Michael D. Patterson. “In future, with more studies, we will be able to know what type of games improves specific abilities, and prescribe games that will benefit people aside from just being entertainment.”

Heroic RPG-style titles, such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V, transport players to different worlds and other cultures, full of magic, sci-fi, or their own specific rules. Studies show that these types of games can successfully develop imagination, creativity and problem-solving skills.

Furthermore, if players choose their avatar, they choose a better image of themselves and gain higher self-esteem through this avatar — in the game as well as in the real world. Many RPGs can be played by a significant number of people (even thousands), which teaches gamers to work naturally in a team or hierarchical structure and to apply economic rules (e.g. when players trade resources with each other).

Team Fnatic playing DOTA 2
Team players: The International DOTA 2 Championships 2015 saw 20 teams compete for over $18 million in prize money.

Being a good “team player” is a virtue that is highly appreciated by employers in larger companies, while healthy self-confidence and the ability to solve complex problems are also very useful.

In real-time strategy (RTS) games, such as Starcraft, Age of Empires or Civilization, players build their own civilization and try to defeat others or overcome an AI enemy. Managing a city or country requires players to monitor their resources and use them efficiently, often against a ticking clock.

The average strategy player clicks between 50 and 200 times per minute, while professionals will often click up to 600 times per minute — 10 actions every second. It’s no wonder these players are skilled at multitasking and rapidly processing audio cues and visual information. These organisational skills can prove to be vital in business and home environments.

The final category, sports games, has already been studied extensively by scientists. In one study, elderly people played racing games (shown in the video above). As well as enjoying the game, the participants improved their ability to multitask and drive not only virtually, but in their own car.

However, the question of how to incorporate games into education remains. First attempts have already been made. A school in Sweden introduced compulsory Minecraft classes back in 2013. Students are encouraged to build their own cities, providing electricity and a water supply.

In many countries, math and physics teachers have already started to use the game Angry Birds, while biology students have been learning through SPORE, a game about evolution.

It’s not just about school, either. Game developers in New Zealand have created a game called SPARX and tested its effects on teenagers suffering from depression. In many cases, the game has proven to be as efficient as traditional conversations with psychologists — sometimes, it’s even more efficient.

So, when it comes to using games in education, the question is not if, but when and how.

Bejjanki, V.R, Zhang, R., Li, R., Pouget, A., Shawn Green, C., Lu, Z-L. & Bavelier, D. (November 10, 2014) Action video game play facilitates the development of better perceptual templates. Retrieved from
Oei, A.C. and Patterson, M.D. (2014) Playing a puzzle video game with changing requirements improves executive functions. Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 37. 216–228
Daniel Wedenig: Virtual Teachers: How Video Games Soon Assist Our Education. State University of New York, Empire State College, 2015.

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