Is gameplay good for us? It’s a question I hear daily from gamers – as well as from their parents, teachers, doctors, therapists, and pastors.
There’s certainly good reason to ask this question. Collectively, as a planet, we now spend more than one billion hours every single day playing videogames – a total that’s up more than 50% from just three years ago. Meanwhile, the average young person racks up 10,000 hours playing videogames by the age of twenty-one. (By comparison, they will spend just 10,084 hours in the classroom throughout all of middle school and high school combined.)
The more we play, the more we reasonably want to know: Are we spending our time wisely, or are we wasting it? Are games a “good” use of our lives?
Let me propose three different ways of looking for the “good” of games – three questions that define “good for us” in substantially different ways.
1. Do videogames make us measurably better at anything? Do they improve our skills and abilities? Here, we can turn to scientific research for answers.
2. Are videogames worthwhile, compared to other activities, when it comes to our happiness and well-being? Will we feel better and enjoy life more if we play them? Here, we can ask gamers themselves about their subjective experience of videogames.
3. Do videogames have any meaning or purpose in the very big picture, in the grand scheme of things? Here, we can consider philosophical and moral considerations of gameplay.
What Scientists Say
Do videogames make us better at anything? Do they teach us new skills, improve our abilities, or help us function more effectively in real life?
The research here is increasingly persuasive. Scientists have found a wide variety of cognitive, emotional and social benefits to gaming in recent years, such as:
Gamers of all ages perform better than non-gamers on tests of attention, speed, accuracy, and multi-tasking. (See the research)
Children who spend more time playing videogames score higher on tests of creativity. (See the research)
Massively-multiplayer online role-playing games improve cognitive function among elderly players, and can help stave off age-related dementia. (See the research)
Scary or violent videogames improve children’s ability to manage difficult emotions, such as fear and anger (See the research)
Parents who spend more time playing games with their kids have better relationships with them – and the kids have better moods, higher grades and less behavior problems (See the research)
First-person shooter games improve our vision – so much so, that they can effectively treat cataracts. (See the research)
Playing videogames gives us the ability to control our dreams and stop our own nightmares – and therefore are being used to treat post-traumatic stress. (See the research)
Videogame technology can increase physical activity in children by 60% and decrease physiological risk factors for heart disease and diabetes. (See the research)
These studies are just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next decade, we can expect to see more and more research into how videogames positively impact our real-life skills and abilities. This research will lead to more “results-oriented” gaming. Increasingly, we will play not just for the fun of it, but to become better versions of ourselves.
For many people, this shift toward real-world results will “redeem” gaming. It will take a seemingly pointless, waste-of-time activity and give it a new validity. Indeed, in my conversations with concerned parents, teachers and doctors, this kind of emerging scientific data seems to offer the most reassurance.
But I think it’s just as important to consider how we feel when we play, in the moment of gaming, as it is to look for measurable and objective outcomes after we game. So let’s see what gamers have to say about the subjective experience of gaming.
What Gamers Say
What makes us happy – and can games play an important role in achieving that happiness?
For years, I’ve been fascinated by one particular research project in the gaming industry– a survey of more than one thousand gamers to find out what emotions they seek out when they play their favorite games.
You can see the results of this survey, the top ten emotions of videogames, here – they range from bliss, to relief, to personal pride, to feeling emotionally close to another player, to surprise, to curiosity, to excitement, to awe and wonder.
What’s extraordinary about these ten positive emotions is that gamers have figured out how to spark and feel them whenever they want, no matter where they are, or what kind of day they’re having. It doesn’t matter if they’re bored or stressed or lonely or frustrated or anxious – gamers can change how they feel, just by starting to play. We know that this is true even for gamers in incredibly difficult conditions. For example, children in hospitals prior to surgery are able to control their anxiety by playing a handheld videogame (see the research), while soldiers in Afghanistan are able to reduce psychological stress by nearly 75% by playing videogames for three to four hours a day (see the research, specifically pages 33-34). In fact, recent clinical trials have demonstrated that online games can outperform pharmaceuticals for treating mild to moderate depression and anxiety. (See the research)
I’m not sure that we’ve sufficiently valued this subjective benefit of gaming yet. When we ask “Are games good for us?” we should take more seriously the idea that games helps us feel better, in the moment, and that this is important work. Reducing the time we spend experiencing negative emotions and increasing the time we spend experiencing positive emotions is a fundamental good in and of itself. Even if games don’t change anything else in our lives, the power to change how we feel in the moment is a very good thing indeed. Games give us more control over our emotional destiny.
Positive emotions, of course are not the only way to measure happiness. In 2011, Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, proposed a new theoretical framework that encapsulated all of the major findings of scientific research on happiness and well-being to date. He called it PERMA, an acronym for the five things that add up to sustained and lasting happiness:
- Positive emotions
- Engagement with challenging work and activities that require us to use our personal strengths
- Relationships or strong social connections with friends, family, peers
- Meaning or a sense of being a part of something bigger than ourselves or being of service to a larger group or cause
- Accomplishment or the chance to learn, get better and achieve
When I interview gamers about the impact of games, I use the PERMA framework as my rubric. I ask not only about if a game provokes specific positive emotions, but also:
- Do you feel fully engaged by the game? Do you feel a sense of “flow”?
- Do you play with other family members at home?
- Do you use online games to stay in touch with distant friends?
- Do you feel more extroverted, or more likely to interact with others, when you play?
- Do you feel a part of a larger community?
- Do you contribute to that community – on forums, or wikis, or by making demo video or tutorials?
- Are you proud of your accomplishments in this game? Has the game made you more resilient?
These are important questions for every gamer to get a better sense of whether games are playing a helpful role in increasing their overall happiness and well-being. The more a particular game leads to answers of “yes” on these questions, I would argue the better the game is. Indeed, if a game is yielding answers of “yes” to two or more of the five questions, you can confidently say, “Yes, this game is good for me because it improves my quality of life.” Our quality of life is determined by how much PERMA we can create for ourselves – and games can help us create more of it.
I rank the ability to lead a happy, satisfying life as an even higher good than developing new skills and abilities. But there is a third way to consider the good of games that may outrank them both.
This is the philosophical consideration of why we play.
What Philosophers Say
When I was a graduate student in 2003, I had the opportunity to attend the first annual meeting of the newly organized Digital Games Research Association, or DiGRA. Hundreds of researchers from the humanities had gathered in Utrecht, the Netherlands to present scholarly studies of why we play, and what makes videogames unique as an art form and cultural practice.
The keynote session was an interview between Eric Zimmerman, an important experimental game designer, and Brian Sutton-Smith, one of the great psychologists of play from the entire twentieth century, who has studied play since before videogames existed. This keynote interview, it was everyone’s hope, would serve as a bridge between the long history of academic research on non-digital play and the new burgeoning field of digital game design and research.
I’ll never forget the very first question and answer of the keynote. I’m not sure I heard the rest of the interview in fact, because the first question and answer left such an impression on me. As I recorded the exchange in my notes – there is no official transcript – Zimmerman asked, “What can you tell us about the important of studying game play? Why should we study digital games?” And Sutton-Smith thought for a moment, and then answered in a booming, and slightly cranky, voice, “WHY do we study play? WHY? We study play because LIFE is CRAP. Life is crap, and it’s full of pain and suffering, and the ONLY thing that makes it worth living the ONLY thing that makes it possible to get up in the morning and go on living is play. Art, and play.” This was a bit of an unexpected answer, and the audience laughed nervously, and I remember Zimmerman having to regroup a bit to continue the conversation.
I’m not sure what anyone else thought at the time, but I heard absolute truth in that answer.
There is something transcendent about playing games that lifts us up and out of the tedium and pain of everyday life.
What is it about games that is transcendent? Perhaps it’s the fact that games are optional, they are obstacles that we volunteer to overcome. Games are what we choose to do. They are what we are drawn to when we have a choice about how to spend our time and energy. Games are freedom.
Perhaps it’s the social and communal aspect of games, that we must all cooperate together to play by the same rules and respect the same values and stay with each other until the game is done, even if we are losing. Games bring us, and keep us, together – and the more people who know how to play a game, the bigger a community we become.
Perhaps it’s the architectural and mathematical elegance of games, the structure of their goals and rules and scoring that produce heightened ways of thinking and interacting that don’t happen in our normal daily lives. Games are structure, carefully designed structure, and structure is art.
Being exposed to these things – to freedom, to community, to art – is a transcendent good, a good that, as Sutton-Smith said, makes life worth living.
My favorite philosopher, Albert Camus, begins his most important work, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, by stating: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
I’m not sure there are many game designers or game researchers (besides myself) who would argue that games are an answer to the fundamental question of philosophy, that is to say the question of suicide. But that is the big question that I think games are best poised to answer. Not “are games good for us”, but “Do games make life worth living?”
This question can’t be answered by scientific research or by interviewing players. It’s an existential question, and we need a strong philosophy of play to explore it.
Ultimately, I think this question trumps the others. Games don’t have to make us better at anything, or even make us happier, to be good. Games are transcendent.
Indeed, in The Grasshopper, one of the most important scholarly texts on games ever written, philosopher Bernard Suits argues that if by some miracle we ever managed to create a perfectly utopian society, in which we had all the resources we needed, and there was no need to work, and no conflict to resolve, games would in fact be the only reason to go on living. We would have to play, or else we would have no purpose in our lives. Games are the very last thing, Suits argues, that can bring a sense of service and collective meaning to our lives when we solve every other problem on earth.
Even when everything is perfect, games will still be good for us.
Here are a few questions for discussion:
Which approach to demonstrating the “good” of games do you think is most valid or important? Do you prefer the scientific approach (Do videogames make us better?), a subjective assessment (Do videogames contribute to our happiness and well-being?), or a more philosophical approach (Do videogames matter)?
Are videogames a source of “real” happiness? Do the positive emotions, social connection, and sense of purpose and accomplishment we feel when we play contribute to real well-being? Or do you think these positive outcomes are merely “virtual”? Are they too fleeting or too disconnected from our “real lives” to matter?
What research should we be doing to better understand the impact of games? If you could design a scientific study to answer any one question about games, what would it be?
In your own life, what videogames would you say have been “good” for you? How would you describe their positive impacts? On the other hand, have there been games that you felt were “bad” for you? What makes the difference between a game that has a positive impact, for you personally, and a game that has a negative impact?
Do game developers have an ethical obligation to consider the impacts of their games on gamers’ real lives and relationships? Is this obligation any more or less than other creators of media or art? Would you encourage designers to become more familiar with scientific research on games’ impacts, and allow it to influence their design? Or do you think that would that interfere with the artistic process?
As we explored the potential positive impacts of gaming together, one idea came up again and again: That gaming is an alternative to something “real” or “productive.” There seems to be a fundamental belief about games – even among gamers – that by choosing to play, we are turning our back on something. We are turning our back either on reality itself, or at the very least, on a productive relationship with reality. And therefore gameplay is defined as a choice that seems fraught with potential peril.
For example, as one participant wrote: “It is easy to get stuck in a game and become completely emerged in it and think of nothing else like any other addict. I’ve been there… So we must look after one another and help each other manage our gaming so that other parts of our lives function as well.” Here, gaming is set up as a discrete part of life that is somehow in opposition to functioning as a productive human being.
Even for those who readily accept there are benefits to gaming, there are still doubts about choosing to play. In fact, most participants in the discussion asked some variation of this question: “But how do we know when it’s too much gaming?” or “When does it become an addiction or dangerous distraction?”
Others argued that gameplay is a choice that is in opposition to potentially more “productive” activities – for example, playing Guitar Hero instead of practicing musical lessons on a traditional, “real” guitar. Therefore, we need to assess “minute for minute, the value compared to other activities.” It seems that we need more evidence to justify choosing to play than choosing to do something “real.”
I think it’s important to identify (and possibly challenge) the assumptions behind these questions and concerns. The assumptions I would say are two-fold: First, that when we play a game, we are doing something other than living “real life”. And second, that activity with a “productive purpose” other than enjoyment or social interaction is at least equally as important to a good life and a good society as play, if not more important and valuable to a good life and a good society than play.
Where does the belief that playing a game is somehow not fully participating in “real life” come from? One participant in the discussion pointed out the similar etymology of words to describe play and things that are not real: “Even more striking are such words as allude, collude, and illusion, all of which are derivatives of the Latin ludere, and all of which refer to a sham, shadow, or simulated reality.”
The fact that games are a protected space, a kind of “magic circle” where we are not punished for doing things we might ordinarily be punished for (think about the violence in contact sports, the deceit inherent in poker, the trash-talking on online videogames) also no doubt adds to this belief. And of course, in videogames, you’re engaging with simulated worlds, rather than physical reality. But what I want to question is this: Does changing social norms to allow for different kinds of behavior make an experience less real? Or is it just allowing us to participant temporarily in a different reality? Likewise, is interacting with a digital simulation of physical space a less real activity in terms of cognition, emotional engagement and social interaction than non-gaming physical exploration or social interaction? I understand that phenomenologically and ontologically we are talking about very different things – exploring a “real” cave in the physical world versus navigating an avatar through one – and we could certainly argue the relative merits of each. (The physical cave offers more exercise and a richer sensory experience; the virtual cave allows you to experience things that might not be readily available in your local environment and it’s safer.) But regardless of which is better, are we actually saying that a physical and cognitive experience of a virtual world isn’t a real experience? It’s still embodied, it’s still activating our brains.
It leads me to wonder: Would our discussion of games and their value be improved if we accepted first that games are a “real” experience, and not an alternative to reality? And do we need to have a conversation about what constitutes “productive” activity? Is it not “productive”, for example, to produce positive emotions, or to produce stronger relationships?
I believe this leaves us with Two New Big Questions:
1. Are games “real”? If so, in what ways? Put another way: Why do we so often consider games “separate from reality” or “opposed to reality” or an “alternative to reality”? Is it actually possible foranythingwe experience during our real, waking lives to be “separate from or “opposed to” reality”? Are we in some sense “dreaming” when we play? Or can you make the case that gameplay is as “real” an activity and experience as anything else we do during our waking lives? How would you make such a case?
2. Does having a “purpose” ruin the spirit of play? Is there something fundamental about traditional forms of gameplay that requires there to be no intention or purpose other than engagement, enjoyment, immersion or a desire to win? Or can you “play with purpose” (like self-improvement, or solving a real-world problem) and still achieve the same sense of freedom, voluntary engagement, lack of fear of failure, etc? If so, is there any philosophical tradition that supports this idea of playing with purpose, rather than play being fundamentally defined as purposeless or without meaning?