The Health Benefits of Call of Duty and Mario: Video Games Make Society A Better Place


In our technology-driven times, video games are often in the headlines. Two weeks ago, for example, an Oklahoma legislator proposed a statewide tax on violent video games, and on Friday IGN reported that new questions are beginning to arise about the rating system used for video games. 

But despite the often negative press, the market for video games is growing. That certainly worries some family advocacy groups and politicians, but it need not worry the rest of us for one reason: on balance, gaming makes us a healthier, happier and smarter society. 

I'm not the gamer I was in high school, but I sometimes still enjoy ending my day by vicariously lobbing grenades at Nazis or playing in the world series, because gaming is a lot of fun. And having fun is a good for your health. The previous sentence probably sells itself, but just in case you're curious, researchers have found that leisure time activities are associated with a number of health benefits. 

According to a 2009 study, "Enjoyable leisure activities ... are associated with psychosocial and physical measures relevant for health and well-being," including "...lower blood pressure, total cortisol, waist circumference, and body mass index, and perceptions of better physical function." On the other hand, lack of leisurely pursuits is linked to several less than desirable outcomes, like lack of energy, lowered immunity to illness and strained relationships. 

So games are fun and fun is healthy, but we can get more specific about the benefits of gaming. Dozens of different studies have suggested that gaming is educational in a number of unexpected ways. While political debates about video games tend to center around concerns about violent content or free speech, people often overlook the fact that character dialogue in games helps children develop their reading comprehension skills; score keeping aids their efforts to grasp basic mathematics; and their ability to communicate improves because gaming facilitates "...discussing and sharing, (ii) following directions (understanding prepositions etc.), (iii) giving directions, (iv) answering questions, and (v) having a discussion topic with visual aides to share with others." 

But the educational benefits of video games extend beyond their ability to improve basic math and reading skills. A more recent review of the relevant peer-reviewed literature found that understanding the technology implemented by game designers and the strategies they use to attract players to their games could help educators develop interactive, digital learning environments. Just as Bill Nye used awesome covers of Nirvana songs to teach 8th graders about air pressure, educators today could emulate the efforts of game designers and publishers to better engage their students.  

We've already seen the benefits of educating people with video games. Many pilotssoldiers and even surgeons have honed their very important skills training on simulators. A 2007 study, for example, found that surgeons who gamed at least 3 hours a week made fewer errors and completed operations faster than their non-gaming colleagues. Because gaming can improve hand-eye coordination, reaction time and spatial visualization, the study concluded that, "Training curricula that include video games may help thin the technical interface between surgeons and screen-mediated applications, such as laparoscopic surgery." 

While these are certainly positive results, critics have argued that gaming is detrimental to society because it promotes violent behavior and discourages physical activity. There is some research to support these conclusions, but they're hotly contested — and probably incorrect. Other scientists have pointed out that there is no correlation between real world violence statistics and the rising popularity of video games. Others still have argued that depression in young people is a much better predictor of violent behavior than exposure to video games. And while it's true that fat kids play a lot of video games, childhood obesity has more to do with our kids' diets than it does how much Call of Duty they play.   

The debate will probably continue for many years. Concerned parents and politicians and a growing gaming industry all but guarantee the controversy hasn't reached its end. It's also apparent, however, that video games benefit society in many ways, and have the potential to do so to an even greater extent in the future.  To be sure, we should pay attention to how our favorite forms of entertainment affect us, but exaggerating their negative effects would be just as dangerous as ignoring them. 

Photo Credit: Sarah B-