Quirks and Quarks

Video games aren't corrupting young minds — they may be building them

New science suggests that video games are rarely addictive, and they can help with social and intellectual development — and possibly even mental health.

Video games are rarely addictive, and can help with social and intellectual development, says researcher

New science suggests that ordinary video games are rarely addictive, and have little impact on violence, and some may well be beneficial. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Originally published on June 1, 2019.

New science is emerging that suggests the moral panic about video games is misguided, and that many games can be benign or even beneficial by helping with social and intellectual development.

In fact, researchers are exploring the use of games as pedagogical tools in education and even as therapeutic tools for anxiety and depression.

A huge number of adults and kids enjoy playing video games: 61 per cent of Canadians define themselves as a gamer, and more than 90 per cent of teens play video games, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada. 

But there's been a long-standing concern about the impact of video games on players, largely driven by outrage at some of the violent, sexist and anti-social behaviour that games like the Grand Theft Auto series seem to model.

Concerns about video games unfounded: researcher

According to Canadian researcher Isabela Granic, chair and professor in the developmental psychopathology department at Radboud University in the Netherlands, the research suggests that there's little good evidence to support the notion that video games are harmful to children or adults.

"There have been a couple of meta-analyses conducted on whether video games incite violence, and the largest two meta-analyses have shown that there's almost no impact of video games on violence and aggression," Granic told Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald.

A bunch of young people sit in front of computers, with the poster of Fortnite in the background.
The immensely popular video game Fortnite has nearly 250 million registered players. The huge appeal of the game reflects the wider appeal of video games in general (BARTOSZ SIEDLIK/AFP/Getty Images)

Addiction is another concern often cited. In June, the World Health Organization classified video game addiction as a mental health disorder.

Granic prefers to use the term "compulsive use" instead and says there's no real evidence that indicate that video games are much different from other hobbies. 

"About one to two per cent of kids who play video games daily are at a point where we should be concerned. They're playing eight to 10 hours a day," Granic said. 

On the other hand, she said the vast majority of kids are only playing one to three hours per day, and they're often playing games socially, with friends from school either in the same room or online. She suggests this digital playground is not too different from the analog one that older generations played on.

"They're talking to one another, and it's a space that they're sharing that's outside of the eyes of parents where they can get a little bit of autonomy, a little bit of control and have that little corner of the playground where they can have some privacy," said Granic. "And they're just fun — joyful, fun games."

Granic doesn't dismiss the idea that video games can contribute to problems with childhood development. But she suggests that they're less significant than things like socio-economic status. 

"It depends on the child and the context. It depends on the diet of digital games and other media that they're consuming, and it hugely depends on parenting."

Minecraft for education

One popular game that's well on its way to becoming not just an entertaining pastime, but a valuable tool in education, is Minecraft.

The virtual building game has been one of the most popular games in the world for nearly a decade. Schools in many countries, including U.S. and Sweden, have actually integrated Minecraft into their standard curricula.

Three years ago, Thierry Karsenti saw the potential of the game for education and brought Minecraft to 118 elementary school students in Montreal. Karsenti is a Canada Research Chair in technologies in education and professor in the faculty of education at the University of Montreal.

A reproduction of the Titanic created by students in the Minecraft program. (Thierry Karsenti)

Unbeknownst to the students, he incorporated elements of the schools' history and math curricula into the customized version of Minecraft.

He ran the program for 15 weeks, and the results he got were decisive. 

"The kids who participated in the after school Minecraft project had significantly higher results in math at the end of the year than those who didn't participate in the project," said Karsenti.

In addition to that, he said, students also developed problem-solving skills and people skills, and the program had a positive effect on their self-esteem and motivation.

Elementary school students playing Minecraft together. (Thierry Karsenti)

The most exciting result, according to Karsenti, were the social benefits derived from the game.

"[Kids] were helping each other, not just within the team, but also other teams that were stuck after they completed their task," he said.

Karsenti says the results suggest that Minecraft could keep students engaged in an activity that they enjoy while also learning along the way. But he warns that the program must be focused on education and be supervised. 

Therapeutic games for anxiety and depression

Beyond social and educational development, there's growing evidence that custom designed games could also be used in therapy for a variety of mental illnesses —  anxiety, autism and even schizophrenia.

In her work as a developmental psychologist, Granic has developed and tested several games to help children struggling with anxiety and depression.

A child playing Mindlight, a video game designed to help children with anxiety. (GEMH Lab)

One example is Mindlight, a neurofeedback game that incorporates clinical techniques to reduce anxiety in at-risk children.

Kids playing the game have to navigate a haunted house and they control the brightness of the game with their mind. A headset monitors electrical activity in the brain, and particularly the kind of activity associated with anxiety.

The calmer they are, the brighter their surroundings become and vice versa. This teaches players to overcome their fears by changing their state of mind.

Granic has tested the game in four studies looking at more than 500 children. Playing the game was shown to decrease children's anxiety levels by about half, and the effects remained even six months after kids stopped playing.

What she found most encouraging was the way the children applied the calming techniques that worked in the game in anxiety-inducing situations in real life.

"Mindlight was shown to be as effective in reducing anxiety as cognitive behaviour therapy, the gold standard of psychotherapy. But it did it in half the time and one tenth the cost." said Granic.

Going forward, Granic hopes to introduce these therapeutic games to the wider population beyond individuals with clinical conditions.

"We all struggle with anxiety, and we all struggle with sad days," Granic said. "Learning how to regulate those emotions in a context that's playful and that allows us to be delighted at the time as we're learning these skills, I think there's immense potential to reach people that otherwise would be stigmatized."