Expert reveals psychological benefits, appeal of video games

2019-08-06 16:02:08 Xinhua Jing Yuxin

Not only are video games at very low risk of becoming problematic, they can actually improve cognitive, emotional and psychological well being, Australian video game researcher and psychologist Prof. Daniel Johnson from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) said on Monday.

As director of the Games Research and Interaction Design Lab at QUT, Johnson has been studying the human-computer interaction of video games for over five years, viewing this relatively unknown world through his unique lens as both a trained psychologist and former game designer.

Johnson is among a growing number of experts and academics who believe that concerns over the negative effects of video games are overblown.

"You can clearly map concerns about new media throughout our history," Johnson said.

"I think much like other media that we've been very worried about in the past, it will settle down, you don't really hear much concern about rock and roll music anymore, but that went through a similar process."

With the video game industry beginning to eclipse both music and movies in terms of popularity and profitability, it's worth asking why so many people are drawn to the pastime.

A good way to understand it, Johnson says, is to apply a psychological principle which emerged during the 1970s, known as self-determination theory.

Self-determination theory suggests that we tend to be drawn to or enjoy an activity when it satisfies three fundamental needs, competence, autonomy and connectedness.

Competence refers to the need to feel good at what we do, autonomy is having the freedom to choose what it is that we do, and connectedness is the sense of feeling related with those around us.

"The work that we've done and others have done, very reliably shows that video games are very good at satisfying those three fundamental needs," Johnson said.

"It's via those things that we see a lot of the positive impacts of video gameplay."

Autonomy, or having the ability to determine your own path or approach, is central to the design of many video games today, be it strategy, RPG, online or even first person shooter, games where the player can forge their own path have proven immensely popular.

Likewise, being good at a game and improving as you go along, is both inherent to the gameplay experience and beneficial for overall well being, with game designers going to great lengths to create intuitive controls which make players feel increasingly competent as they progress through the game.

Finally connectedness, not something normally associated with those who spend their time playing video games, but in fact with the rise of online multiplayer options, people are staying connected with friends in new and exciting ways.

Johnson says that with the satisfaction of these three needs, likely comes a range of other benefits, helping people to overcome issues like anxiety and generally to feel better about themselves and others.

But as good as that all sounds, can plugging in too often lead to harmful overuse and even addiction? Johnson doesn't think so.

"We think in a lot of cases, what people might consider video game addiction is a misdiagnosed issue and if we are to assume video games are the cause of problems in some cases we'll be missing the real cause," he said.

"Of course there are people who have a problematic engagement with video games and we're not saying that doesn't happen, but regardless of the term you use, it's an absolute minority of cases where that happens, the vast majority of people are having a positive experience with video game play."

The team at QUT conduct their research using cutting edge biometric equipment, measuring, breathing, heart rate, skin conductivity, eye movements and brain activity.

This allows them to receive real time feedback on player experience, without having to disrupt gameplay, and has shown them that regardless of genre, cognitive benefits are present as long as the player is enjoying the game.

"The best guide for people is what they enjoy playing if you're someone that loves puzzle games then you're going to get the most benefit from that," Johnson said.

"Whereas if you're quite extroverted, you might be more organically drawn to a game that involves play with other people and more connectedness."

With staggering profits and legions of fans worldwide, video games appear more than a passing trend, which is why the research of people like the team at QUT is important in helping us figure out how to make the most of them.

"More and more evidence is mounting for the fact that in the majority of cases, video games are a positive influence, but I also think like other media we will better learn how to engage in a healthy balanced way," Johnson said.

"I think we are still working out in some cases, the best ways to help young people navigate their engagement with video games and we will get better as time goes by."

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