How would you describe your time gaming? Are you a casual player, playing for an hour or two by yourself or with friends? Or do you take it more seriously, aiming for achievements and success? Either way, it is hard to deny that gaming is starting to have more of an influence on our lives. Think about the blockbuster releases last year, with games such as Modern Warfare 3 and Skyrim generating enormous levels of attention. Thousands upon thousands queued up for their midnight launches. Even if you have the patience to wait until your game arrives in the post, it is clear that there is a huge demand for gaming entertainment. And with over three billion hours spent collectively on our consoles each week, the number of active gamers just keeps on rising.
A consequence to this influx of new players is the increased media attention into how gaming affects us as individuals and as a society. Is our behaviour and attitude altered; do we become more aggressive or violent? The media seems to have a negative attitude towards gamers without much consideration into the benefits that playing games can offer. So what are the benefits?
Your immediate answer might be improved reflexes, dexterity or better hand eye coordination. And it is true that your reactions can be enhanced by gaming. The advantages do not stop there. In fact, your mental well-being can see some real life gain too. After all, playing games challenges you mentally, and anything that increases your brain activity can heighten your abilities in a variety of tasks. So, what exactly can gaming do for you?
Firstly, think about how you feel when you play games. Are you able to relax, step back from a hard day’s work and enjoy the thrill of shooting zombies in the face? A study in 2008 asked people why they pick up a controller, with 88% of the gamers doing so to alleviate tension. Gaming alters the biochemistry of the brain. When you play, your brain releases a substance called Dopamine more frequently than usual. Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure. As a consequence you become less stressed and feel happier.
The science extends further than a quick mental boost however. Gaming can provide us with happiness on a fundamental level. According to psychologists, there are four pillars that make for a happy existence. They are: satisfying work, real hope for success, strong social connections and the opportunity to become part of something bigger than ourselves. These act as the foundations for optimal human experience and there is much evidence to suggest gaming can provide us with all these pillars on a frequent basis.
How do they do this? In general, developers want you to feel productive. Their aim is to motivate you, to encourage you to maximise your potential. If you are involved in a game, you are less likely to get bored and stop playing. In games you have a clear goal to work for and certain objectives to complete in order to get there. You will be faced with a number of obstacles that prevent you from finishing your task. For example, you are stopped by a locked door. How do you get around it? You can’t kick it down and it is the only entrance. So you need to find a key.
Your search takes you to a tough enemy. You have to kill him to retrieve it. The fight is difficult and you may die a few times. Eventually you overpower him and the key is yours. Now you can open the door.
The path to where you needed to be wasn’t easy. You had to complete a number of different challenges but by doing so, you feel successful. There is a sense of accomplishment as your efforts are rewarded. In this scenario you got through the door. But it could be saving your family from the bad guys or completing a series of complex manoeuvres within a time limit. Remember the last time you got stuck on a game. Did you feel good once you got past it?
This positive feeling is increased when you see the impact of your work on the world around you. You were able to overcome the challenge and open the door. What is on the other side? Perhaps some treasure, or maybe another trial awaits you.
Most games are set in this style. You are confronted with something that tests your abilities. As you improve, the difficulty increases so there is always a challenge. Rewards then keep you motivated. This is why incredibly difficult games and easy games do not offer the same enjoyment. There isn’t the satisfaction when you play. It isn’t as fulfilling. But when a game gets the right balance you have a stronger self belief. And of course you keep playing.
The virtual world is important too. When you immerse yourself in the awe inspiring vistas of games you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself. You are able to engage this environment in a way you couldn’t in reality. You face moral dilemmas and make big decisions. You have the opportunity to save the world.
The characters also contribute to this feeling. Who is the main protagonist in your favourite game? How do you feel about them? Your bond with the people you control or involve yourself with is crucial. You won’t enjoy the game as much if there isn’t an emotional attachment. You won’t feel as good when they succeed or feel saddened when they fall. You see the characters progress, their emotions and flaws exposed. A great game brings these characters to life. Their sacrifices can even move you to tears. Fans of the Gears of War series will know what I’m talking about. You devote your time to helping them succeed. You are Marcus Fenix. You are the Master Chief. You are Commander Shepard. From this there is a sense of heroic purpose. You want to know how their story ends and you feel happy when you finish.
The creative part of your brain can benefit from these expansive worlds too. Want to visit Renaissance Italy, an underworld Utopia, a nuclear ridden city or a future Earth? Easy. And when you play these games your mind is opened to a whole new area of possibility. The storylines get your creative juices flowing. The demand for more developed stories has resulted in some incredibly immersive and moving games. Would you kindly cast your mind back to the last game that fully absorbed you? How did it affect you? By pushing the boundaries of games closer to a cinematic experience, you can be truly inspired by what you play. Your interactions give you the chance to set your imagination free. After all you are less restricted than when you read a predetermined story. It’s YOUR adventure.
Furthermore, games can provide you with strong social connections. When you play, you are more likely to help somebody or act selflessly. Whenever you have feelings of awe you are encouraged to serve a larger cause. Compelling stories or impressive environments; anything that amazes you can work as inspiration. So just think. When you are exploring the beautiful landscape of 15th Century Constantinople in Assassins Creed Revelations, you may feel more inclined to wash the dishes afterwards.
Games make it easier to build stronger social bonds with your friends or family. After playing a game with someone, there is a better chance that you will like and trust them, even if they defeat you. Granted you may not befriend the little kid who spawn camps you but there could be respect between you and the guy who killed you during an epic standoff. How do you feel about the people you play with most? Would you class them as good friends? With the rising popularity of Xbox Live, we are in a position where we create strong social connections much easier…and without even getting off the sofa.
Now listen up! The enemy has flanked your army and defeat is approaching. What are you going to do? Do you order your men to keep attacking or do you call a retreat, saving what remains of your army, but lose the battle?
Games throw you headfirst into scenarios without warning. You face situations you have never experienced before. There are intelligent and deadly enemies that have been programmed to take you down. In order to succeed you need to react quickly and adapt. You have to think fast and line up your options. There is pressure to make the right choice and you have to make it instantly. This decision could impact your progress in the game at a later date. Or you could pick wrong and have to start all over again.
The skills that you need here are important in reality. How often do we encounter problems that require us to make a decision? Every day, whether it is something simple like what you are having for breakfast to deciding what is the next step in your career. Games encourage your mind to think in completely new and different ways, helping you develop these attributes. They improve your ability to process information and solve problems. Researchers have found that gamers perform higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive ability. We can think more analytically and strategically. In fact, up to 20% better than our non gaming counterparts. Well done, you!
As a result you are capable of approaching and reacting to real life situations better than before. Games increase your short term memory and expand your field of vision. Good for the simplest tasks and more importantly, good for succeeding on Battlefield 3!
Multiplayer plays its part in developing these skills too. They hone your ability to adapt and your situational awareness as you are frequently challenged by others. What if you are being rushed by two players- one with a shotgun and one with a machine gun – how do you react? The more successful you are in these scenarios, the better you can become as a player. Furthermore, when you are fighting against others your brain needs to work in order to determine how they are going to play. You can then take appropriate action. By thinking one step ahead, you can perform better in these situations and in real life.
Finally, your communication skills can improve along with your cooperation. Talking to your team and sharing tactics or locations promotes your chances of winning. If you are less comfortable in social situations, conversing while gaming can help you.
And if you are still doubtful about the benefits, consider how much time you dedicate to the games you enjoy. How many hours do you clock up exploring these huge worlds, completing the campaign and all the side quests? Even if you have no interest in fighting dragons, or piloting spaceships, you still spend a similar amount of time playing multiplayer in Gears of War, Halo or Call of Duty.
Yet there is no real-world advantage to spending this time gaming. You do not make any money. You don’t improve your social status and you don’t achieve any external success. You don’t add ‘completed every Halo game on Legendary’ on your C.V or brag about it to your boss or your girlfriend. But this doesn’t stop you. We play for ‘intrinsic rewards’, the term given to things that just make us happy. Without any actual reward, we do it purely for enjoyment. This feeling is addictive and this is why more people are converting to gaming. When compared to reality, games are able to offer immediate pleasure more frequently and reliably. Remember the four pillars of happiness. A good game will have all four. Whether you are a hardcore gamer or a casual gamer, there are more than enough reasons to keep playing. So go on, open that door. Find out what is on the other side.