Forty years ago, video games were relegated to a niche group of arcade-going enthusiasts—just think of the endearingly nerdy preteens in the hit Netflix drama Stranger Things or The Simpson’s stalwart Comic Book Guy—but in the past decades games have soared in popularity. In 2020, 2.69 billion people, or roughly a third of the world’s population, played video games and the global games market raked in $159.3 billion in revenue. And since they’ve hit the mainstream, they’ve far outpaced their original purpose. Video games are not just for fun anymore: they have an increasing portfolio of uses, from assisting with medical diagnoses to training professionals to (our personal favourite here at We Are Family) innovative market research, especially in the family and children sector.
So, without further ado, here are five things video games can do beyond entertainment:
1. Provide Market Research Insights
There is huge potential for video games to be valuable research tools. A well-designed game can combine the complexity of real-world scenarios with the repeatable, consistent experience that you need to conduct research. In essence, they’re a researcher’s dream for gaining insight into decision making. From analysing game play to interviewing players afterwards, the breadth of potential for gaming as a research tool is staggering.
For example, Sea Hero Quest is a game designed to help scientists understand deficits in spatial navigation, which is a common symptom in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Since its launch in 2016, 4.3 million people around the world have played Sea Hero Quest for over 117 years, giving scientists data that would have taken traditional research methods 176 centuries to collect.
2. Enhance our Empathy
As well as providing new research insights, video games can vault participants into different realities (and other people’s shoes) which mean that they can encourage people to understand each other’s worlds and help foster empathy.
3. Keep our Brains Sharp
Playing video games might make us smarter, too (or at least more strategic). Action, role-playing, and puzzle games make us flex our problem-solving skills, and there is even some evidence that playing these games might result in children achieving higher academic grades. There is scope for games to be used to improve our brain’s fitness as we age, too, and even combat the effects of dementia. In one study, researchers asked participants to spend 30 minutes a day playing games that included 3D environments (think Super Mario world instead of Angry Birds or Solitaire) and found that the game play could be effective in fighting the effects of age-related cognitive decline.
4.Improve our Accuracy
According to researchers at the University of Rochester, video games can train player’s brains to make decisions faster without sacrificing accuracy. In this context, video games are being used to train pilots, soldiers, and surgeons. Osso VR is a virtual reality game that was developed to help trainee surgeons hone their skills without the fear of error (or the need for that grim, age-old teaching tool, a human cadaver). In 2019, it was named one of Time Magazine’s best inventions of the year.
5. Help us Focus
While video games have long been thought of as a distraction from real life, the Boston-based Akili Interactive Labs has received FDA approval for their use of video games to treat ADHD (Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Akili has partnered with game platform Roblox to make EndeavorRx®, a fun and gripping game designed to systematically engage the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for things like attention, planning, working memory and task switching.
It’s worth saying that not all games are made the same. There is some concern about the publicity around EndeavorRx®: while it’s specifically designed to help kids with ADHD, parents might read a headline and jump to the conclusion that all games are good for their kids' brains. While this might seem like a relatively harmless leap, kids with ADHD are more likely to show symptoms of videogame addiction which leads to increased rates of depression and social isolation. So, encouraging them to hop on to any gaming platform won’t get the desired results, and it might even be bad for them.
For video games to fill their potential as social tools for good, it’s vital that there is a line drawn in the sand between ‘applied’ games, which are used for applications like healthcare, research and education, and recreational ones. In any case, video games are here for good, and though it will take some time to realise their full capacity as social tools, the work so far is very promising.
In the meantime, sit down to your favourite game guilt-free and if anyone questions you, send them this article!