8 Reasons Video Games Might Just Be Better for You Than Books

Updated: Feb. 10, 2017

When we play games, we devote a special quality of mental attention that activities like reading or watching TV often don’t demand. Games demand full engagement—and when our brains are fully engaged, amazing things start to happen.


Games help break bad habits

Bad habits form around rewards; nobody craves a pack of cigarettes or a pint of ice cream because they hate the way nicotine or sugar makes them feel. But while your local pharmacy offers a whole suite of products designed to curb physical cravings, staving off mental cravings is often on you. One proven solution: play a game. A 2014 study conducted jointly by Brown University, the American Cancer Society and Stony Brook University found that smokers deprived of nicotine could reduce their cravings simply by playing two-player games or solving puzzles with their romantic partners. Why does this work? According to MRI scans of the participating couples’ brains, cooperative play and puzzle solving activated the exact same reward centers as nicotine does. Many games—especially the casual variety you are likely to find in your app store of choice—are designed to offer persistent rewards for completing challenges (think of the satisfying visual and sound effects when you obliterate a row of tiles in Candy Crush). So, the next time you feel a craving: reward yourself with a game first. Here are more mental tricks to quit smoking and science-backed tips to stop food cravings.


Games reduce pain

Haters may dismiss video games as an “escape” from the challenges of real life but, for many gamers, a more accurate word might be “relief.” In one experiment at the University of Washington Harborview Burn Center, patients undergoing treatment for severe burns were given virtual reality headsets to play a game called Snow World, allowing them to explore an immersive 3-D landscape of hidden ice caves, jolly snowmen, and a pleasant dusting of snowflakes even as caregivers provided painful wound treatments. Patients who played Snow World reported being able to ignore their pain a whopping 92 percent of the time, while those who didn’t typically spent 100 percent of treatment thinking about their own suffering. What’s more, Snow World patients felt an average of 30 to 50 percent total pain reduction, providing an even greater relief than morphine. Why does this work? Scientists point to the “spotlight theory of attention,” suggesting that our brains work like a spotlight able to focus on a limited amount of information at a time. When our cognitive resources are focused on a mentally-demanding game (say, Candy Crush or Temple Run on your phone), we have less attention to give external stimuli like smells, sounds, and even pain. Here are 7 things you do that make pain feel worse.


Games give you control of your memory

Engaging your brain with a challenging puzzle not only helps ease immediate physical pain, but also helps control painful recollections of past trauma. For proof of this we turn to a series of Oxford University studies around everyone’s favorite Russian block-stacking game, Tetris. Study participants were shown a sequence of graphic, gory images in order to simulate post-traumatic stress disorder, then broken off into two groups. One group played Tetris for ten minutes while the other group did nothing. When they checked in a week later, researchers found that the Tetris group experienced half as many flashbacks of the violent images as the group that did not play, and overall showed significantly fewer symptoms of PTSD. Why does this work? Pattern-matching games like Tetris and Candy Crush occupy the visual processing power of the brain so effectively that involuntary visual memories (flashbacks) are severely disrupted. The Oxford study notes that this is only true of visual-heavy games like Tetris; a more text-based game like Words With Friends would not have this memory-hijacking effect.


Games reduce anxiety

Now that you know games can reduce the pain from burn treatments and PTSD, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that they can also calm down kids before a date with the doctor. Researchers at the New Jersey Medical School’s anesthesiology department found that children who were allowed to play handheld video games before surgery felt virtually no anxiety. What’s more, when they came to from anesthesia after their surgery, game-playing kids felt less than half as much anxiety as the kids who were given medication instead. Why does it work? As with the Tetris and Snow World experiments, this handheld anxiety-reduction is a simple case of shifting the mental spotlight. Kids absorbed in Minecraft will focus their brainpower on their virtual building goals rather than their impending surgery; and when you’re constructing an empire from the ground up, who has time to get scared? Here are more natural remedies for anxiety.


Games can motivate you to exercise

If you’re determined to lose weight but just can’t force yourself into the gym after work, here’s a surprising solution: exercise virtually first. According to recent research from Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction lab, study participants who watched virtual avatars of themselves running on a treadmill reported feeling remarkably higher confidence that they could get in shape, then went on to exercise for a full hour longer than participants who merely watched their digital twins stand around onscreen. Why does this work? According to VHIL founder Jeremy Bailenson, PhD, the avatar experiment offers participants the instant gratification of immediate virtual weight loss. “Working out with a virtual doppelgänger means you can see physical rewards of exercise right away,” he says, “which is something that doesn’t typically happen in the real world. In the real world, it takes days or weeks to notice any positive physical changes.” It’s important to note: this motivational trick only worked when the avatar closely resembled the participant (so, busting a sweat in The Sims is a safer bet than in Pokemon Go!) Here are other exercise motivation tricks you haven’t tried.


Games fight depression

PopCap Games, the company behind successful casual games like Plants Vs. Zombies, Bejeweled, and Peggle knows that having fun is serious work. In a formal survey with its players, PopCap found that 77 percent of players admitted to seeking mental of emotional health benefits from playing, and that casual games were an effective tool for reducing stress, improving mood, and stopping anxiety. Why does this work? To answer that question, PopCap partnered with biofeedback researchers at East Carolina University to monitor the actual shifts in brain activity experienced by casual players. The results were astounding: After just 20 minutes of playing, gamers simultaneously showed an increased heart-rate variability (tied to reduced stress and higher resilience) and decreased left frontal alpha brain waves (tied to improved mood, which players corroborated on a written survey). Participants who spent their 20 minutes surfing the Internet saw no such improvements in mood or heart-rate. As leading game researcher Jane McGonigal says in her book, SuperBetter, “Someday soon it’s quite likely that psychologists or doctors will commonly write prescriptions for Angry Birds to reduce anxiety, or Peggle to treat depression, or Call of Duty for anger management.”


Games make you more resilient (and optimistic)

Anyone who has ever picked up a controller knows that “game over” is a temporary state of being. If a particularly challenging level bests you, most games give you an immediate chance to retry, now armed with more of the knowledge, experience, and skill needed to complete your quest. For many gamers, real life works the same way. A team of 25 scientists from Europe and North America recently reported that people who play nine or more hours of video games every week have higher gray matter volume in the reward-processing area of their brains. In other words, frequent gamers have more brain power to devote to determination, motivation, and optimism than non-gamers. Why does this work? “When you have constant opportunities to try different strategies and get feedback, you get more frequent and more intense bursts of dopamine… not only do you get minute-to-minute pleasure, but the mindset starts changing in long-term ways,” neuroscientist Judy Willis, MD, says in SuperBetter. “Your brain adapts to seek out more challenge, to be less afraid of failure, and to be more resilient in the face of setbacks.” These are other daily habits of optimistic people.

iStock/Izabela Habur

Games make you get along better with strangers

To a kid, everyone is a potential playmate. It’s a blissful mindset that diminishes with age—but, according to a study from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, it’s a mindset that only takes a little gaming to reignite. NTU scientists paired up college students and senior citizens for a series of weekly, 30-minute hangouts to play Nintendo’s motion-controlled ten-pin simulator, Wii Bowling. Unsurprisingly, after six weeks of chucking virtual balls together, the students and seniors considered each other friends; but even better, students and seniors alike reported less anxiety about the other group, and said they were more likely to socialize with someone form the other group going forward (the control group, who only watched TV with each other, did not report any of these improved feelings). In other words, playing games with someone doesn’t just make you one new friend—it opens the doors to millions of potential friends. Why does this work? NTU researchers believe that games have an incredible equalizing effect on disparate social groups that other activities do not: game participants agree to play by the same rules, start with the same resources (in the case of Wii Bowling, physical strength does not matter when it comes to scoring high), and focus on the same goal. Even when in competition, this equalizing effect creates empathy between players, making it easier to connect with them and understand their motivations. In the tidy universe of a game, social tension doesn’t stand a chance.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest