Editor’s note: Every month, the team at Ravenwood Health posts about a mental-health topic. This month, Casandra Zouhary, LPCC, Emergency Services Coordinator discusses the benefits of playing video games. 

Limiting screen time, be it binging television, scrolling though social media, or playing video games is widely known as a quick and easy way to boost mental health. And for many, it’s true—research showing a correlation between excessive screen time and negative behavior is increasingly nuanced and valid. However, like any activity, technology has both benefits and drawbacks, and understanding the benefits is an important part of integrating healthy technology use into a balanced lifestyle.

Video games in particular offer many benefits which are often overlooked in the wider cultural conversation often maligning gaming as the cause of violent and aggressive behavior, particularly in teens. In fact, studies show a much more significant correlation between aggression and erratic mood than with action-genre video game use. While it is true extreme video game use can become dysfunctional when it interferes with other responsibilities*, more and more research is showing a balanced approach to video game use can provide meaningful emotional experiences, affirming social connections with like-minded individuals, resilience in the face of adversity, and pro-social behavior toward others in cooperative gameplay.

Video games provide the opportunity to engage in creative problem-solving without fear of failure, which is correlated with better academic performance, encourage goal-oriented behavior, and promote cognitive plasticity to improve memory and recall, particularly in older gamers. Video games can also improve fine motor skills, sharpen reflexes, improve attention, and decrease negative stress. Also important to note is the overlap with traditional play, which is essential in healthy childhood development. In fact, research has shown that cooperative video game play with a parent is indicative of a higher level of civic engagement and pro-social development.

In the case of more physically immersive gaming such as Wii Fit, games can boost physical health benefits, too. As virtual reality and augmented reality games become more accessible, so too will the benefits of these types of gaming become more prevalent. In the last few years, Pokémon GO, an augmented reality mobile game, has proven many of these physical and prosocial benefits in real time as players get out of the house to explore their cities, work collaboratively, and meet other gamers in public spaces.

It’s important to remember, video games have come a long way since the days of Pong and Tetris—which, by the way, are great exercise for your brain! Modern games run the gamut from peaceful and philosophical to downright gratuitous, so it’s wise to consider age appropriate content when selecting a video game. Most important to remember, games are meant to be fun! So don’t be afraid to try something new—your brain will thank you.

My recommendations

*Concerned about your loved one’s video game use? Generally, the benefits of gaming decline over time, so encourage limiting play-time and balancing the cognitive exercise of video games with plenty of physical exercise outside and time spent in green spaces. If you have concerns technology is negatively affecting your loved one, contact your local mental health agency to discuss your concerns.

Cassandra is currently reading Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal.