As parents, we focus more attention on the potential dangers than on the potential benefits of electronic video games, but these games are a normal part of modern childhood. If you know what to look for, video games can be a powerful tool to help children develop certain life skills. They can help parents choose appropriate leisure-time games, help educators seek ways to supplement classroom teaching, and help game developers create games that teach.
Recently, I wrote a research paper called “Children’s Motivations for Video Game Play in the Context of Normal Development” that was featured in the Review of General Psychology. The research included results from studies I led at Harvard Medical School and survey data compiled from interviewing over 1,000 public school students. Based on my research, here are eight reasons why video games can be beneficial to your child’s growth and education.
Video games can help children’s brain development. When my son was a young adolescent, I watched him play Legend of Zelda games. He had to search, negotiate, plan, and try different approaches to advance. Many recent games, such as Bakugan: Defenders of the Core, involve planning and problem-solving. “Modding,” the process by which players customize gamer characters’ appearance and develop new game levels, also allows for creative self-expression, deep understanding of game rules and structure, and new ways of highlighting personalities and interests. Video games don’t have to be labeled “educational” to help children learn to make decisions, use strategies, anticipate consequences and express their personalities.
The content of certain video games can encourage kids to read and to research. Video games such as Age of Mythology, Civilization, and Age of Empires may spark a child’s interest in world history, geography, ancient cultures and international relations, especially if parents are alert to opportunities. To quote researchers David Shaffer and James Gee, “When children have parents who help turn Age of Mythology into an island of expertise, tying it to books, Internet sites, museums, and media about mythology, cultures and geography, the children pick up a wide range of complex language, content and connections that serve as preparation for future learning of a highly complex and deep sort.” What’s more, these games often allow children to design and exchange maps or other custom content, helping them acquire creative and technical skills while having fun.
In contrast to their parents, most young kids see video games as a social activity, not an isolating one. Video games create a common ground for young kids to make friends; allow kids to hang out; and provide structured time with friends. In our research, boys were more likely to play video games with a group of friends, either in the same room or online. Plus, young boys said games were a frequent focus for conversation among their peers: One boy revealed that his peers at schoolmostly talked about “girls and games — the two Gs.” Our research found that children with mild learning disabilities were likely to choose “making new friends” as a reason they played video games.
In my own research, players (specifically boys) talked about learning new moves from sports video games and then practicing them at the basketball court or on skateboards. Some took up new sports after being introduced to them in video games. As one boy revealed in a research focus group, “In the games that are real, which are mostly the sports games, you see them do amazing plays. If you go outside and try them and keep practicing, you could get better.” Research showed that playing realistic sports video games (excluding tournament fighting) lead to an increased time spent playing sports and exercising in real life.
It’s normal and healthy for kids, especially boys, to compete with their peers as they jockey for status and recognition. In my surveys and focus group studies with young teens, “I like to compete with other people and win” was one of the most popular reasons for playing video games — again, especially for boys. Video games are a safe place to express those competitive urges, and can give children who aren’t good at sports a chance to excel.
When children play video games in groups, they often take turns leading and following, depending on who has specific skills needed in that game. In studies by Nick Yee of the Palo Alto Research Center, teens who had played group games online felt they had gained leadership skills such as persuading and motivating others, and mediating disputes. Online multi-player games offer teens a rare chance to participate in, and sometimes lead, a diverse, mixed-age team. And nobody cares how old you are if you can lead the team to victory.
Roughly one-third of the children we studied said they played video games in part because they liked to teach others how to play. As one boy’s dad revealed during research, “Most of the interaction my son has with his buddies is about solving situations within a game. It’s all about how do you go from this place to that place, or collect the certain things that you need, and combine them in ways that are going to help you to succeed.” Some children gain status as the “go-to” kid who knows how to beat the toughest parts of a game. Teaching others builds social and communication skills, as well as patience.