The surprisingly positive effects of video games on kids and adults
Tetris. Super Mario Brothers. Halo. World of Warcraft. As video games progress, their pros and cons are hotly debated: they help improve the gamer’s spatial relations—but limit actual social interactions; they help improve hand-eye coordination—but gamers don’t play sports; they they teach gamers skills—but gamers get too absorbed in the game to use them. The list goes on.
Hot debate about the emotional and physical health of the next generation of gamer kids aside, new research reveals some very profound positive effects on kids’ and adults’ emotional well-being from gaming. Two new studies show that a cognitive behavioral video game called SPARX is effective for treating depression in kids, and that a game of Tetris can relieve symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Focusing on a highly engaging visual-spatial task, like playing Tetris, may lessen flashbacks and other psychological symptoms following a traumatic event. The theory is that the engagement in the task disrupts the formation of the flashback. PTSD is characterized by flashbacks, invasive, unpredictable distress signals or jarring mental images that may also trigger other PTSD symptoms like irritability, anger, poor concentration, and sleep disorders.
Researcher Emily Holmes, a research clinical psychologist at Oxford University, cautions: “Whilst playing Tetris can reduce flashback-type memories without wiping out the ability to make sense of the event, we have shown that not all computer games have this beneficial effect — some may even have a detrimental effect on how people deal with traumatic memories.”
In contrast to Tetris, which may be the world’s most recognized video game, the Smart, Positive, Active, Realistic, X-factor video game, SPARX, was developed to provide clinical-level treatment to digital natives. It works like an interactive fantasy avatar computer game, providing psychoeducation, relaxation training, and cognitive restructuring, while setting and monitoring real-life challenges. In preliminary studies, adolescents (ages 12 to 19) showed symptom reduction equal to the results with “usual care” protocols (working with trained counselors) but recovery rates were higher when participants completed at least four homework modules.
Beyond being an alternative treatment method, SPARX has the potential to reach underserved populations and adolescents who might not normally receive any treatment. Some statistics suggest less than 20% of adolescents with depression are treated. The researchers concluded that SPARX “was at least as good as treatment as usual in primary healthcare sites in New Zealand, but would be cheaper and easier to disseminate.”
Like anything else, moderation may be key. The distinct benefits gained from video gaming are promising, but so are social interactions, recreation, exercise, and being in the outdoors. Can the benefits of gaming be applied to other areas like stress and anger? The jury is out, but give it a shot personally: when you start to stress or feel down, allow yourself 5-10 minutes of video game time, be it Tetris or Angry Birds.