Since their inception in the 1950s, video games have undergone a lengthy and criticism-riddled transformation. Initially an exciting development following the invention of the Cathode-Ray Tube Amusement Device, the first interactive electronic game, video games bore the brunt of disapproval for years. They were considered a waste of time and derided as a “useless” hobby until technological advancements brought them into the award-filled stage presence they enjoy now.
Today, the video game industry is predicted to grow from a market value of under $200 billion to over $260 billion in 2025, a number greater than the film ($91.83b) and music ($25.9b) industries combined, proving its versatility and economic strength. Equally important are the impacts video games have on consumers: Contrary to the mindset put forth by a 2009 Centers for Disease Control report, which described the average gamer as “overweight, aggressive, introverted and…often depressed,” there are several benefits to playing video games, the least of which is improved coordination. Problem-solving, cooperation, social skills and a host of other cognitive perks have increased video games’ usefulness over the years. And now, games are opening doors to worlds that television can’t (or won’t) explore in terms of inclusion and representation on screen.
The most measurable benefits of video games are the cognitive advancements gamers develop through hours of playing. Requiring spatial and sensory-motor skills to complete, the complexities of today’s releases suggest that video games are more than “mindless” activities and “could be used to develop both visuo-motor and cognitive skills.” Considering that the average controller has 12 different buttons (not counting two joysticks for movement and camera control), a certain level of dexterity and memorization is needed to simply play through even the easiest games with minimal competency.
The relationship between video game experience and reaction times has even been tested. A short amount of video game training can reduce reaction times by approximately 50 milliseconds, proving the effectiveness of the gaming experience. Spatial visualization has also been found to be “trainable with video game play,” with numerous practical applications in the real world. Architects and engineers cultivate the ability to envision three-dimensional projects from two-dimensional diagrams.
More recently, the Federal Aviation Administration held an open-enrollment hiring period where they actively recruited gamers for air traffic controller jobs, “targeting young, diverse candidates with the hand-eye coordination and spatial skills” found in gamers. Because the nature of the job requires constantly scanning maps and communicating with multiple parties — skills that correlate perfectly with many open-area multiplayer games — some employees even claim to use video games to improve their on-the-job skills.
Another significant benefit of video games is the social aspect of many online games. Titles like Call of Duty, Overwatch, World of Warcraft and Valorant often feature collaborative missions that require open communication (often through voice chat) to complete coordinated actions between multiple live players. Similarly, many players engage in banter or discussion on third-party apps (Discord, Skype, FaceTime) while playing multiplayer games, fulfilling a social need for interaction and simulating real-life brainstorming sessions. In the long run, this can improve communication and negotiation as well as problem-solving skills, all of which are necessary and applicable in many walks of life. These also contribute to shaping better team players, people more willing to listen to others’ input and cooperate with a group to achieve a common goal.
Video games can also provide an escape for many that feel isolated in their home lives. As Bioshock creator Ken Levine put it, “Games are often a way to work through pain.” Being able to chat with a friend while playing together or completely disappearing into an immersive, single-player world can be a lifesaver for those suffering from poor mental health or a toxic home environment.
“Isolation plays a significant role in anxiety and depressive disorders,” Glenn Platt, Ph.D., a professor at Miami University in Ohio noted, saying that the social community a game ecosystem offers can mitigate such feelings. There are also emotional benefits of playing video games, as they can be used as therapeutic distractions to “help regulate moods, reduce rumination, and even evoke joy.” Games targeted at children not only help develop problem-solving skills but can enhance creativity as well. “By learning to cope with ongoing failures in games,” children can build emotional resilience that is useful in everyday life.
Not only do video games improve physical and emotional well-being, but many games today incorporate deeper and more personal storylines, often placing players in the midst of a moral quandary. In cases like BioShock, players can choose to spare certain characters based on their backstories, resulting in differing endings to the game and the lesson that actions have consequences. Red Dead Redemption hammers home the redemption referred to in the title, allowing the player, as the outlaw Arthur Morgan, to perform numerous side missions to help randomly spawned citizens that crop up across the map.
This mechanic is used in many games, with Skyrim, Marvel’s Spiderman and Miles Morales, and the Assassin’s Creed series being notable for the interactions with side quest characters. Often the gratification of helping a character and the small adventure it takes players on is enough to warrant the helping hand without an in-game reward being necessary (though often given regardless). In contrast, The Last of Us Part II has a particularly gut-wrenching sequence in which the player is forced to commit an act of violence, where the score and the visible reaction of the main character combine to evoke the feeling of crossing a line into forbidden territory and revulsion. Using these tactics, games can teach people about right and wrong in both subtle and unsubtle ways, even encouraging people to think more about their actions in their everyday lives.
Though lacking in film and television, representation has found its way onto video game screens. With highly customizable characters (Cyberpunk 2077, Red Dead Online, Elden Ring), video games allow players to see themselves on the screen and more fully empathize and immerse themselves in the experience, as opposed to sympathizing with characters that all fulfill the typical “fit, average male” mold. Johnny Silverhand, a character from Cyberpunk 2077, even has a prosthetic arm that is available for clinical trials. A partnership between Microsoft, CD Projekt RED (Cyberpunk’s developer) and Limbitless Solutions (a nonprofit specializing in accessible and affordable bionics and prosthetics) resulted in the Silverhand model, which joined the nonprofit’s previous projects, including Halo and League of Legends-inspired prosthetics.
Unfortunately, many games still lack representation. A study of 100 games released between 2017 and 2021 found that 61.2% of characters in games are white, with all other ethnicities combined making up the remaining 38.8%. Additionally, 79.2% of the main protagonists were male compared to only 20.8% female, though Apex Legends did come out on top as the most diverse game in the study with about 50% of playable characters being female, 35% of characters being “openly gay, bisexual or otherwise ‘not straight’” and 50% of playable characters being “black, Asian or otherwise ‘not white.’” Hopefully, things move in a positive direction for diversity and representation on all screens, but for now, fully customizable avatars are opening the doors to seeing a wide range of playable characters in video games.
Despite years of condemnation, video games deserve more positive consideration as a worthwhile hobby instead of falling by the wayside as “time wasters.” Cognitive abilities and dexterity can both improve from playing video games and help make people more equipped for the real world, whether in their careers or emotional well-being. With all the benefits and the sheer amount of consideration — both technical and creative — that go into creating a single game, much more credit is due to the impact games have on society.
People willing to help strangers and go out of their way to brighten someone’s day could have learned the habit from a game (in Red Dead Redemption 2 players can offer to give lost characters a ride home or donate change) or could be trying to better themselves by helping others. Video games should get their long-overdue praise.