Switching On to Switch Off | The social, emotional & developmental benefits of gaming | Tech Talk

Switching On to Switch Off The social, emotional & developmental benefits of gaming

Video games haven’t always had the best reputation. But did you know that gaming can play a very positive role in people’s lives?

We spoke to experts in the field to help us turn stereotypes on their head and learn more about the positive benefits of taking up gaming as a hobby, from relieving stress to tackling loneliness.

Meet the experts

Dr Rachel Kowert, Ph.D

Dr Rachel Kowert is the Research Director of mental health non-profit, Take This, and a content creating Psychgeist (scientist of games). She has spoken on, and published books and articles about a range of topics relating to the uses and effects of digital games, including her award-winning title A Parent’s Guide to Video Games.

Dr Matthew Barr

Dr Matthew Barr is a lecturer at the University of Glasgow, where he convened the University’s first Game Studies course. He sits on the BAFTA Scotland Committee and currently serves as the Games Jury Chair. He is also the author of Graduate Skills and Game-Based Learning.

Noel McDermott

Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years’ experience in health, social care and education. Today, he runs a successful psychotherapy and consultancy business. He also produces and presents The Well-Being Show, a live podcast where he’s joined by qualified experts sharing stories and reflecting on topical mental health issues.

Gaming in 2020 | The social, emotional & developmental benefits of gaming | Tech Talk

Gaming in 2020

With the UK’s games industry estimated to be worth £3.86 billion in 20201, and 52% of Brits stating they play video games2, it’s clear that so many find enjoyment in gaming. While some love to use their brainpower for a strategy-based title, others put their reaction times to the test with first-person shooters and driving games.

It’s an industry of variety and inclusivity. While concerns have been raised in the past about the representation of gender, race and sexuality in games, many game studios are proactively working to address these imbalances. Today, you can find more powerful, female characters in the forefront, minority ethnic characters portrayed far more positively, and LGBTQ+ relationships more widely available within narratives. What’s more, technology has been adapted to make gaming more accessible to those with disabilities.

At the start of 2020, it was estimated that Brits spend approximately 7 hours a week gaming3, and this rose by 11% since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. So, is all this time spent engrossed in a virtual world good for us?

Gaming can improve mental wellbeing | The social, emotional & developmental benefits of gaming | Tech Talk

Gaming can improve mental wellbeing

With the world facing challenging times, any activity that allows an individual to put their worries to back of their mind is welcomed. Gaming is a great example of this, with well-crafted storylines and lifelike graphics providing the perfect form of escapism. In fact, 34% of gamers identify the feeling of being immersed in a game as a key motivation to play. What’s more, a new survey has found the global gaming population is likely to have increased by 4% since the outbreak of Covid-19 and gamers are spending a steady 21% more on gaming per month4.

Research has found games to have a significant, positive impact on our mental well-being. At its most basic level, games are playful, interactive spaces. Play is important for human life throughout the lifespan and, in and of itself, has been associated with reduced depression and anxiety. Game play can also teach skills that have long been associated with increased happiness and prolonged life satisfaction: openness to experience, self-care, a growth mindset, solution-focused thinking, mindfulness, persistence, self-discovery, and resilience.

Dr Rachel Kowert

In our research, we’ve been looking at how video games have helped players cope with the recent lockdown. We found that players overwhelmingly reported that gaming had improved their mood, as well as providing opportunities to de-stress and to socialise. Players also reported that playing games had given them a feeling of agency – the feeling that they are in control. With everything that’s been going on, the lockdown has left many people feeling like they lack control, that they lack agency.

Dr Matthew Barr

Gaming has a number of potential benefits across a range of areas. It can help stimulate brain development; it can help with fine motor skills; it has social interaction benefits; and it can help some people with career opportunities. Psychologically, gaming can function as a way for regulating emotions and as a form of reward and relaxation. All these stress reduction benefits are very valuable.

Noel McDermott

Gaming can connect people | The social, emotional & developmental benefits of gaming | Tech Talk

Gaming can connect people

Contrary to popular belief, gaming can be a very sociable activity. With many games offering multiplayer modes, players can join forces with their friends or team up with others from around the world. Players must then work cooperatively and efficiently to complete tasks, which takes a good level of communication and teamwork.

In fact, 1 in 3 internet users in the UK say the main reason they game is to have fun with people they know, and half of gamers play regularly with their real-life friends5. This said, it’s also very possible to make brand new relationships purely online. In a recent study, it was found that 60% of gamers had been playing more multiplayer games with social elements since the beginning of the pandemic6, demonstrating the value gaming can offer in maintaining social contact.

Games are a great way to socially connect with others (especially during times of social distancing). Games provide unique, social spaces characterised by shared activities. We know that socialisation is a key component of our wellbeing. Shared experiences, like playing games together, have been found to bolster positive social connections and are linked to increased self-esteem and a sense of belonging, as well as decreased feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

Dr Rachel Kowert

The success of many of the biggest games today stems from their social nature – playing with or against friends online. Multiplayer games – especially those played online – may even provide less outgoing or confident players a social outlet that they otherwise wouldn’t enjoy. This, in turn, allows players to develop social skills while also expanding their social network. Being able to play online with friends and family who may be physically distant also allows us to maintain those relationships.

Dr Matthew Barr

Gaming, especially online, can provide immeasurable benefits to those who are lonely and isolated. It provides safe social contact and a place where skills can be developed. Gaming has opened up new ways of socialising, with online platforms encouraging engagement and providing spaces that people with social anxieties and phobias can excel in. They also promote connections among people who would never meet in real world contexts – crossing national, cultural, political and economic barriers.

Noel McDermott

Gaming can improve decision making & cognitive abilities | The social, emotional & developmental benefits of gaming | Tech Talk

Gaming can improve decision making & cognitive abilities

There’s more to gaming than just entertainment. Many titles involve problem solving, strategy and quick thinking. In fact, a third of gamers play because they like to challenge themselves7. So, arguably, playing games can teach cognitive skills and improve players’ ability to make educated, rational decisions. These cognitive skills could include spatial attention, with games training the brain to react quickly to threats or opportunity; multi-tasking and mental flexibility, with games requiring the player to monitor or flick between various aspects of a game; and even memory, with gamers retaining vast knowledge on game tactics and learnings.

Beyond these transferrable skills, gaming could lead to career opportunities within the industry. As of 2020, there are over 2,000 games companies and 20,000 gaming jobs available in the UK8.

Video game play has been associated with the improvement of a range of cognitive skills such as improved creative thinking, problem solving, time management, leadership skills, goal setting, initiative taking, decision making, and persistence in the face of difficult challenges. Video games are great vehicles for sharpening cognitive skills because they provide a range of different challenges within a single space. For example, in many games, players explore new areas, solve puzzles, and cooperate or compete with other players to achieve increasingly difficult tasks.

Dr Rachel Kowert

It’s no accident that video games exercise certain transferable skills. A lot of game developers describe how they design their games to require communication, for example, or to think critically to succeed. Different genres will exercise different skills. Online multiplayer games require teamwork, so use communication skills and the ability to collaborate. On the other hand, a single player adventure game which requires you to solve a series of puzzles is going to exercise your critical thinking and logical reasoning.

Dr Matthew Barr

Without a doubt gaming has an impact on decision making and cognition. In a wider sense, the online world is having a very big impact on these areas in the real-world population. Games are complex environments that function on the level of direct consequence to decisions; they require knowledge retention to navigate various levels and the development of strategy to win. Additionally, there are opportunities to learn economics skills and potential work-related skills in the field of competitive gaming and game design.

Noel McDermott

Gaming is good for education & child development | The social, emotional & developmental benefits of gaming | Tech Talk

Gaming is good for education & child development

It’s estimated that children aged 12-15-years-old spend an average of 11.6 hours a week gaming9. But is this something to combat or encourage?

As gaming can help develop cognitive and life skills, it could also be able to effectively function as a tool for education and child development. Games can be adapted to serve educational purposes and goals, and are a great way to keep children feeling engaged. Minecraft: Education Edition, for example, has applications in maths, history, computer science, and physics10. Gaming also provides kids with experience using technology, which can be incredibly valuable for those with a potential future in development, coding or programming.

Games are fantastic learning tools, particularly for children, because they’re so engaging. Games often induce a state of ‘flow’. Colloquially referred to as being “in the zone,” players experience flow states when the in-game challenges are balanced with the skill level of the player. While in this state, players become hyper-focused and are driven to continue playing because they’re having a good time. When in a flow state, various kinds of learning can occur because the player is hyper-focused and determined to complete the in-game tasks while their skill levels are being challenged.

Dr Rachel Kowert

We all learn new skills through practice. Learning from a video game is no different – you’re exercising skills all the time, whether it’s figuring out puzzles or using your communication and language skills to talk to and strategize with your fellow players. Plus, games offer opportunities to learn about ourselves and about the world around us. In much the same way as reading a book can expand our understanding of the world, games can open our eyes to what it’s like to experience things from a different point of view.

Dr Matthew Barr

Gaming promotes neurological growth and operates in the frontal and pre-frontal lobe regions. As such, it clearly triggers development in those areas of the brain connected with educational attainment. Additionally, it can promote social connection. Strategy games based on knowledge, motivation, and empathy, for example, encourage motor skills and broader educational development.

Noel McDermott