Photo By Nevit Dilmen / CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s not only teenagers who can benefit from playing games.

Playing games, whether they involve cards, dice, counters or the imagination, is an ancient practice that people of all ages throughout the centuries have enjoyed. 

As technology progressed, gaming switched from a real-life practice to something done on a console and more recently, over the internet. Along with its popularity, the rise of video gaming as a hobby also generated a lot of mistrust and bad press, especially since it was the younger generations that seemed most enthusiastic about these sometimes-graphic new gaming formats.

Gaming technology is now so sophisticated that it’s possible to connect and play with hundreds of other players from around the world, and you can even play 3D games on your smartphone. An, far from only a method of distraction, many of today’s games can also have a positive impact on mental and emotional health.

Still a Social Activity

The stereotypical idea of a video game enthusiast is that of a nerdy loner, and while there’s something to say for being able to have those moments of introspection, the opposite is true of most video game players today. In truth, the influx of multiplayer games and online role-playing adventures have given rise to a new form of socializing whereby players connect online and work together to solve problems and meet challenges. 

Playing these kinds of video games is an excellent way to connect with new people who have like-minded interests, and the various social media platforms also used by gamers enables them to build a global online community. So, at its heart, playing video games remains a social activity. Recent studies have also shown that games are a popular reason for friends to meet in person since approximately 70 percent of regular game players meet up with their friends to play for at least some of their gaming time.

Reduced Stress and Improved Mental Health

Unfortunately, some types of games have endured the label of being detrimental to mental health and well-being, especially the ones thought to increase stress levels like shoot ‘em ups and horror games. In truth, however, many games can have the opposite effect: A recent study tracking the physical and emotional health of players over a period of six months revealed that playing certain games can reduce adrenaline response by over 50 percent.

Taking this hypothesis a step further, in 2013, a group of researchers discovered that there was a connection between playing commercial video games and improved symptoms of depression and anxiety. In the study titled “The Efficacy of Casual Videogame Play in Reducing Clinical Depression,” the researchers examined how useful playing casual videogames were by asking half the participants of the study to play these games for 30 minutes, three times a week over a calendar month. The other half had to spend the same amount of time surfing the National Institute of Mental Health’s website. 

When measuring each group’s depression scores using the PHQ-9 questionnaire, the researchers found that the group who played the video games had significantly lower scores than the other group and showed a higher level of improvement in their depressive symptoms.

Games Can Change Your Brain

Different types of games can improve different abilities. For example, fast-paced games can improve mental dexterity and hand-eye coordination while strategy and puzzle games can develop enhanced problem-solving skills and those of a more creative nature. Decision-making abilities are also significantly improved when playing a regular strategy game, such as a round or two of poker. In fact, poker improving decision-making is the subject of an enlightening TED Talk from top professional player Liv Boeree.

Playing poker, or any other game that requires a high level of concentration can even, quite literally, change your brain through a process called neuroplasticity. Scientific evidence shows us that our brains are not fixed from birth, and they can change and expand depending on our individual experiences and the knowledge we acquire. So, when playing regular games, poker players create additional neural pathways in their brain, recruiting extra brain cells for this purpose from other functional areas. Since it’s a game that also requires close interaction with other people, professional poker players can develop their intuition to a high level and are adept at controlling their emotions to think strategically.   

The Fight Against Memory Loss

Brain-training games involving memory, puzzle and problem-solving activities are now more popular than ever, and for a good reason, too. They have been proven to have a positive impact on the cognitive functioning of older players — one study revealed that playing such games for as little as 10 hours had a lasting improvement on the cognitive functioning of players over 50 — so they are becoming powerful tools in the fight against memory loss and degenerative mental conditions.

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Mario has become a hero in more ways than one.

A recent investigation from the University of Montreal looked at the connection between 3D video games and brain growth, with surprising results. The study consisted of a total of 33 people between the ages of 55 and 75 recruited for the study and split into three different groups: one group was to nothing, the other was to play the piano with a computer simulation, and the third was to play the classic platform game Super Mario 64, all across a period of six months. 

The scientists discovered that the video gaming group had a significant increase in gray matter in the cerebellum, which is the center of motor control and short-term memory, and in the area of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain associated with memory building. In contrast, the group that did nothing displayed significant loss of gray matter, and the piano-playing group also showed a growth in the cerebellum gray matter. However, the video gaming group was the only one to display increased growth in both areas.  

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