Complex, challenging, and ambitious, video games have come a long way since the simple arcade titles of the 1970s—and evidence is mounting that the benefits of play go well beyond entertainment and improved hand-eye coordination. Here are 15 ways games are programming better people.
1. Video games are producing better surgeons.
While you may think you want your surgeon reading up on the latest medical research instead of playing games, you might want to reconsider: a study of laparoscopic (small incision) specialists found that those who played for more than three hours per week made 32 percent fewer errors during practice procedures compared to their non-gaming counterparts.
2. Video games could help people overcome dyslexia.
Some research points to attention difficulties as being a key component of dyslexia. One study has shown people with dyslexia improved their reading comprehension following sessions of games heavy on action. The reason, researchers believe, is that the games have constantly changing environments that require intense focus.
3. Video games could improve your vision.
“Don’t sit too close to the television” used to be a common parental refrain without a lot of science to back it up. Instead, scientists are discovering games in moderation may actually improve—not strain—your vision. In one study, 10 weeks of play was associated with a greater ability to discern between different shades of gray. Another had participants try to play games using only their “lazy” eye, with the “good” one obscured. Those players showed significant, sometimes normalized improvement in the affected eye.
4. Video games could help make you a better leader.
Because certain genres of games reward and encourage leadership traits—providing for “communities,” securing their safety, etc.—researchers have noted that players can display a correlating motivation in their real-world career goals. Improvising in a game can also translate into being faster on your feet when an office crisis crops up.
5. Video games could pique your interest in history.
Many games use actual historical events to drive their stories. Those characters and places can then spark a child’s interest in discovering more about the culture they’re immersed in, according to researchers.
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6. Video games can make kids more active.
Some games promote a whole-body level of interaction, and those can lead to physical activity. Sports games that involve basketball, tennis, or even skateboarding can lead to children practicing those same skills outdoors.
7. Video games might slow down the aging process.
So-called “brain games” involving problem-solving, memory, and puzzle components have been shown to have a positive benefit on older players. In one study, just 10 hours of play led to increased cognitive functioning in participants 50 and older—improvement that lasted for several years.
8. Video games might help ease pain.
It’s common to try to distract ourselves from pain by paying attention to something else or focusing on other body mechanisms, which is one way video games might help us following an injury. In one study, participants were able to keep their hand immersed in cold water longer when playing a game compared to those watching television—a passive distraction. The more immersive, the better—which is why pending virtual reality systems may one day be as prevalent in hospitals as hand sanitizer.
9. Video games can help you make new social connections.
Gamers are sometimes stigmatized as being too insulated, but the opposite is actually true. The rise of multi-player experiences online has given way to a new form of socializing in which players work together to solve problems. But studies have shown games can also be the catalyst for friends to gather in person: roughly 70 percent of all players play with friends at least some of the time.
10. Video games can help improve balance in people with multiple sclerosis.
Since it is a disorder affecting multiple nerves, multiple sclerosis patients often have problems with their balance. One study showed that MS patients who played games requiring physical interaction while standing on a balance board displayed improvement afterward.
11. They can improve your decision-making skills.
We all know someone who seems to have a faster CPU than the rest of us, able to retrieve information or react in a split second. For some, that ability might be strengthened through gaming. Because new information is constantly being displayed during play, players are forced to adapt quickly. In one study, players who were immersed in fast-paced games were 25 percent faster in reacting to questions about an image they had just seen compared to non-players.
12. Video games can curb cravings.
Players preoccupied with indulging in overeating, smoking, or drinking might be best served by reaching for a controller instead. A university study revealed a 24 percent reduction in desire for their vice of choice after playing Tetris compared to participants who were told to play but had to watch the game try to load instead.
13. Video games can reduce stress.
While some games are thought to induce stress—especially when you see your character struck down for the umpteenth time—the opposite can be true. One study [PDF] that tracked players and measured heart rate found that players enjoyed decreased stress.
14. Gamers might be less likely to bully.
Though the stance is controversial, some researchers have asserted that action games may reduce a bully’s motivation to—well, bully. One study that had players assume the role of both the hero and villain showed that those controlling the bad guy’s behaviors displayed a greater sense of remorse over their actions.
15. Video games can help address autism.
Gamers using systems that incorporate the entire body to control onscreen movement have been shown to be more engaged in celebrating victories with their peers, which runs counter to the lack of communication people with autism sometimes present. In one study, players with autism spectrum disorders were more inclined to socialize while playing an active (full body) game than if they were engaged in other types of play or playing with a stranger.
A version of this story ran in 2017; it has been updated for 2023.