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Pressing the right buttons: The positives of playing video games

Whether playing video games has negative effects is something that has been debated for 30 years, in much the same way that rock and roll, television, and even the novel faced much the same criticisms in their time. Purported negative effects such as gaming addiction, increased aggression, and various health consequences such as obesity and repetitive strain injuries tend to get far more media coverage than the positives. I know from my own research examining both sides that my papers on video game addiction receive far more publicity than my research into the social benefits of, for example, playing online role-playing games.

However there is now a wealth of research which shows that video games can be put to educational and therapeutic uses, as well as many studies which reveal how playing video games can improve reaction times and hand-eye co-ordination. For example, research has shown that spatial visualisation ability, such as mentally rotating and manipulating two- and three-dimensional objects, improves with video game playing.

To add to this long line of studies demonstrating the more positive effects of video games is a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Vikranth Bejjanki and colleagues. Their paper demonstrates that the playing of action video games – the sort of fast-paced, 3D shoot-em-up beloved of doomsayers in the media – confirms what other studies have revealed, that players show improved performance in perception, attention, and cognition.

In a series of experiments on small numbers of gamers (10 to 14 people in each study), the researchers reported that gamers with previous experience of playing such action video games were better at perceptual tasks such as pattern discrimination than gamers with less experience. In another experiment, they trained gamers that had little previous experience of playing action games, giving them 50 hours practice. It was showed that these gamers performed much better on perceptual tasks than they had prior to their training. The paper concludes:

“The enhanced learning of the regularity and structure of environments may act as a core mechanism by which action video game play influences performance in perception, attention, and cognition”.

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In my own papers, I have pointed out many features and qualities that make video games potentially useful. For instance, in an educational context, video games can be fun and stimulating, which means it’s easier to maintain a pupil’s undivided attention for longer. Because of the excitement, video games may also be a more appealing way of learning than traditional methods for some.

Video games have an appeal that crosses many demographic boundaries, such as age, gender, ethnicity, or educational attainment. They can be used to help set goals and rehearse working towards them, provide feedback, reinforcement, self-esteem, and maintain a record of behavioural change. Their interactivity can stimulate learning, allowing individuals to experience novelty, curiosity and challenge that stimulates learning. There is the opportunity to develop transferable skills, or practice challenging or extraordinary activities, such as flight simulators, or simulated operations. Because video games can be so engaging, they can also be used therapeutically. For instance, they can be used as a form of physiotherapy as well as in more innovative contexts. A number of studies have shown that when children play video games following chemotherapy they need fewer painkillers than others.

Video games can have great educational potential in addition to their entertainment value. Games specifically designed to address a specific problem or teach a specific skill have been very successful, precisely because they are motivating, engaging, interactive, and provide rewards and reinforcement to improve. But the transferability of skills outside the game-playing context is an important factor. What’s also clear from the scientific literature is that the negative consequences of playing almost always involve people that are excessive video game players. There is little evidence of serious acute adverse effects on health from moderate play.

A version of this article was first published in The Conversation.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bejjanki, V. R., Zhang, R., Li, R., Pouget, A., Green, C. S., Lu, Z. L., & Bavelier, D. (2014). Action video game play facilitates the development of better perceptual templates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(47), 16961-16966.

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Video games and clinical practice: Issues, uses and treatments. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 36, 639-641.

Griffiths, M.D. (2002). The educational benefits of videogames Education and Health, 20, 47-51.

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). The therapeutic use of videogames in childhood and adolescence. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 8, 547-554.

Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Can videogames be good for your health? Journal of Health Psychology, 9, 339-344.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Adolescent video game playing: Issues for the classroom. Education Today: Quarterly Journal of the College of Teachers, 60(4), 31-34.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2016). Videogames as therapy: An updated selective review of the medical and psychological literature. International Journal of Privacy and Health Information Management, in press.

Griffiths, M. D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2013). Videogames as therapy: A review of the medical and psychological literature. In I. M. Miranda & M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Eds.), Handbook of research on ICTs for healthcare and social services: Developments and applications (pp.43-68). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2013). Proposing the Crime Substitution Hypothesis: Exploring the possible causal relationship between excessive adolescent video game playing, social networking and crime reduction. Education and Health, 31, 17-21.

Griffiths, M.D. & Sutton, M. (2015). Screen time and crime: The ‘Crime Substitution Hypothesis’ revisited. Education and Health, 33, 85-87.

Tales of the unexpected: 10 bad habits that sometimes do us good (Part 1)

All of us have bad habits, and all of us from time to time feel guilty about these habits. But there are some bad habits – at least when carried out in moderation – that might actually have benefits for psychological and/or physical wellbeing. Most bad habits help change our mood state and reduce stress (at least in the very short-term) but tend to become less helpful the more they are engaged in. Some of these bad habits turn into addictions where the short-term benefits are outweighed by the long-term costs. However, there are many activities that can sometimes have unexpected benefits and five of these are outlined in this blog. The next five bad habits will be in my next blog.

(1) Fidgeting helps burn calories

While fidgeting might be annoying for individuals and those around them, it is an activity that expends energy and burns calories. Fidgeting is one of a number of activities (along with walking, gardening, typing, tidying up, etc.) that are known as non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). In basic terms, NEAT is any activity that is not eating, sleeping, or sporting exercise. A number of studies carried out by obesity expert Dr. James Levine at the US Mayo Clinic (Arizona, US) have shown that individuals who fidget burn up about 350kcal a day. This is because fidgeting speeds up an individual’s metabolism by stimulating neurochemicals in the body thus increasing the ability to convert body fat into energy. So, if you are a compulsive foot tapper, an excessive thumb twiddler, or a restless doodler, just remember that all of these activities burn calories.

(2) Chewing gum helps boost thinking and alertness

Watching people chew gum is not a pretty site but if English football managers are anything to go by, chewing gum appears to be a stress relieving activity. In fact, there appear to appear to be many cognitive benefits of chewing gum. Dr. Kin-ya Kubo and colleagues in the book Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders noted that chewing gum immediately before performing a cognitive task increases blood oxygen levels in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus (important brain structures involved in learning and memory), thereby improving task performance. Dr. Kubo argues that chewing gum may therefore be a drug-free and simple method of helping those with senile dementia and stress-related disorders that are often associated with cognitive dysfunction. Another study by Dr. Yoshiyuki Hirano and colleagues showed that chewing gum boosts thinking and alertness, and that reaction times among chewers were 10% faster than non-chewers. The research team also reported that up to eight areas of the brain are affected by chewing (most notably the areas concerning attention and movement). As Professor Andy Smith (Cardiff University, UK) neatly summed up: “The effects of chewing on reaction time are profound. Perhaps football managers arrived at the idea of chewing gum by accident, but they seem to be on the right track”. 

(3) Playing video games helps relieve pain

Many individuals that do not play video games view the activity as a complete waste of time and potentially addictive. While excessive video game playing may cause problems in a minority of individuals, there is lots of scientific evidence that playing video games can have many beneficial effects. For instance, a number of studies have shown that children with cancer who play video games after chemotherapy take less pain killing medication. Video games have also been used as pain relieving therapy for other medical conditions such as burns victims and those with back pain. This is because playing video games is an engaging and engrossing activity that means the player cannot think about anything else but playing the game (and is what psychologists refer to as a ‘cognitive distractor task’). Pain has a large psychological component and individuals experience less pain if the person is engaged in an activity that takes up all their cognitive mind space. As well as being a pain reliever, there are also many studies showing that playing video games increase hand-eye co-ordination, increase reaction times, and have educational learning benefits.

(4) Eating snot helps strengthen the immune system (maybe)

How does it make you feel when you see someone picking their nose and then eating what they have found? Disgust? Contempt? Amused? In 2008, Dr Friedrich Bischinger, an Austrian lung specialist, claimed that picking your nose and eating it was good for you. He claimed that people who pick their noses with their fingers were healthy, happier and probably better in tune with their bodies than those who didn’t. Dr. Bischinger believes that eating the dry remains of what you pull out of your nose is a great way of strengthening the body’s immune system. He explained that in terms of the immune system, the nose is a filter in which a great deal of bacteria are collected, and when this mixture arrives in the intestines it works just like a medicine. He said that “people who pick their nose and eat it get a natural boost to their immune system for free. I would recommend a new approach where children are encouraged to pick their nose. It is a completely natural response and medically a good idea as well”. He went on to suggest that if anyone was worried about what other people think, they should pick their noses privately if they want to get the benefits.  This view is also shared by Dr. Scott Napper, a biochemist at the University of Saskatchewan. He theorises that hygiene improvement has led to the increase in allergies and auto-immune disorders and that eating snot may boost the immune system by ingesting small and harmless amounts of germs into the body. The same theory has also been applied to another bad habit – biting fingernails – because again, the act of biting nails introduces germs directly into a person’s orifices.

(5) Daydreaming helps problem solving

Daydreaming is something that can occupy up to one-third of our waking lives and is often viewed as a sign of laziness, inattentiveness and/or procrastination. However, scientific research has shown that the ‘executive network’ in our brain is highly active when we daydream. A study carried out by Professor Kalina Christoff and colleagues and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found activity in numerous brain regions while daydreaming including areas associated with complex problem solving. These brain regions were more active while daydreaming compared to routine tasks. It is believed that when an individual uses conscious thought they can become too rigid and limited in their thinking. The findings suggest that daydreaming is an important cognitive state where individuals turn their attention from immediate tasks to unconsciously think about problems in their lives. Christoff says that “when you daydream, you may not be achieving your immediate goal – say reading a book or paying attention in class – but your mind may be taking that time to address more important questions in your life, such as advancing your career or personal relationships”. In addition to this, Dr. Eric Klinger of the University of Minnesota has argued that daydreaming also serves an evolutionary purpose. When individuals are engaged on one task, daydreaming can trigger reminders of other, concurrent goals so that they do not lose sight of them.

Part 2 of this article will be in the next blog.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Christoff, K., Gordon, A.M., Smallwood, J., Smith, R., & Schooler, J.W. (2009). Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 8719-872

Fox, K.C., Nijeboer, S., Solomonova, E., Domhoff, G.W., & Christoff, K. (2013). Dreaming as mind wandering: evidence from functional neuroimaging and first-person content reports. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 42. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2013.00412.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies (pp. 161-171). Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J., & Ortiz de Gortari, A. (2013). Videogames as therapy: A review of the medical and psychological literature. In I. M. Miranda & M. M. Cruz-Cunha (Eds.), Handbook of research on ICTs for healthcare and social services: Developments and applications (pp.43-68). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Hirano, Y., Obata, T., Takahashi, H., Tachibana, A., Kuroiwa, D., Takahashi, T., … & Onozuka, M. (2013). Effects of chewing on cognitive processing speed. Brain and Cognition, 81, 376-381.

Kato, P. M., Cole, S. W., Bradlyn, A. S., & Pollock, B. H. (2008). A video game improves behavioral outcomes in adolescents and young adults with cancer: A randomized trial. Pediatrics, 122, E305-E317.

Klinger, E. (2009). Daydreaming and fantasizing: Thought flow and motivation. In Markman, K. D., Klein, W.P., & Suhr, J.A. (Eds.), Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation (pp. 225-239). New York: Psychology Press.

Klinger, E., Henning, V. R., & Janssen, J. M. (2009). Fantasy-proneness dimensionalized: Dissociative component is related to psychopathology, daydreaming as such is not. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 506-510.

Kubo, K. Y., Chen, H., & Onozuka, M. (2013). The relationship between mastication and cognition. In Wang, Z. & Inuzuka (Eds.), Senescence and Senescence-Related Disorders. InTech. Located at: http://www.intechopen.com/books/senescence-and-senescence-related-disorders

Levine, J.A. (2004). Nonexercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT): environment and biology. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology And Metabolism, 286, E675-E685.

Levine, J.A., Melanson, E. L., Westerterp, K. R., & Hill, J.O. (2001). Measurement of the components of nonexercise activity thermogenesis. American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism, 281, E670-E675.

Levine, J.A., Schleusner, S. J., & Jensen, M.D. (2000). Energy expenditure of nonexercise activity. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 72, 1451-1454.

Redd, W.H., Jacobsen, P.B., DieTrill, M., Dermatis, H., McEvoy, M., & Holland, J.C. (1987). Cognitive-attentional distraction in the control of conditioned nausea in pediatric cancer patients receiving chemotherapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 55, 391-395.

Reichlin, L., Mani, N., McArthur, K., Harris, A.M., Rajan, N., & Dacso, C.C. (2011). Assessing the acceptability and usability of an interactive serious game in aiding treatment decisions for patients with localized prostate cancer. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 13, 188-201.

Vasterling, J., Jenkins, R.A., Tope, D.M., & Burish, T.G. (1993). Cognitive distraction and relaxation training for the control of side effects due to cancer chemotherapy. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 16, 65-80.

Wighton, K. (2013). From biting your nails to burping and even eating in bed: The bad habits that can be GOOD for you! Daily Mail, April 8. Located at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2305953/Bad-habits-From-biting-nails-burping-eating-bed-The-bad-habits-GOOD-you.html

Altered states: The psychology of distraction in gambling

I’m sure that most of you are aware that nearly all casinos around the world do not have clocks or windows. Casino operators don’t want their customers to think about time or give them external cues such as whether it’s night or day. By doing this, a gambler’s temporal perception is altered and gamblers may lose track of time and reality (and hopefully spend more money!). Although this may not be good from a financial perspective, from a psychological perspective, losing track of time and reality may not necessarily be such a bad thing.

Psychologists believe that gambling is an excellent  ‘distractor task’. What we mean is that playing slot machines, roulette or poker, has the capacity to engage much of a gambler’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity that is needed. Continuous gambling also allows the possibility to sustain achievement because of the level of difficulty and skills involved in most games. In short, they provide a challenge that uses a lot of mental energy.

One positive benefit of gambling may be a temporarily higher pain threshold. Research studies have shown that cognitive and attentional distraction has the capacity to block the perception of pain. The reasoning behind this is that distractor tasks (such as gambling and videogame playing) consume some degree of the attentional capacity that would otherwise be devoted to pain perception. Although gambling has never been tested in this way experimentally, research into videogame playing and pain perception has shown that those who play videogames after treatment for things like chemotherapy need significantly less painkillers than those who don’t play videogames. However, one of the problems with this type of “snapshot” research is that there has been no long-term follow-up and it is unclear whether players eventually tire of such games. Therefore other factors need to be explored such as novelty of the activity, game preference, and relative level of challenge.

There has also been an increasing amount of research showing that gamblers who play for long periods of time can enter “dissociative states” of mind. Dissociation is a form of altered state of consciousness. These behaviours lie on a continuum and range from losing track of time, feeling like your someone else, blacking out, not recalling how you got somewhere or what you did, and being in a trance like state. In its most extreme form it can include multi-personality disorders.

Dissociation also needs to be differentiated from distraction although it could be the case that they are at opposite ends of the same continuum. For example, a person may use gambling as a distracting activity but over time may progress into a dissociative one. Distraction usually involves a person’s attention being pulled somewhere other than where he or she wants it to go although some people may deliberately engage in some activities (like drinking alcohol, gambling, smoking etc.) as a way of shifting their thoughts away from something they do not want to think about. Distraction can be born out of boredom, lack of interest, melancholy and creativity. More generally it can be viewed as a low-level state of avoidance. It may also be a symptom of depressive or mood disorders and high levels of stress. On the whole, losing track of time because of distraction is normal when you are having fun. Blacking or going into a dissociative trance like state is not!

There is also the possibility that the medium of gambling influences distraction capacity. For instance, some of my own research has suggested that the Internet may provide immersive and dissociative feelings for its users and may facilitate feelings of escape. I also believe that the anonymity of the Internet allows users to privately engage in activities like gambling without the fear of stigma. The anonymity may also provide the gambler with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of the online experience.

Anonymity can also increase feelings of psychological comfort since there is a decreased ability to look for, and thus detect, signs of insincerity, disapproval, or judgement in facial expression, as would be typical in face-to-face interactions. For activities such as gambling, this may be a positive benefit particularly when losing as no-one can actually see your face. However, one of the consequences of technology and the Internet has been to reduce the fundamentally social nature of gambling to an activity that in many cases is asocial. Most problem gamblers report that at the height of their problem gambling, it is a solitary activity. Gambling in a social setting has the potential to provide a kind of “safety net” for over-spenders as friends will often notice excessive and  ‘out of character’ behaviour. This is lost when gambling alone on the Internet.

The interactivity of the Internet may also be psychologically rewarding and different from other more passive forms of entertainment (such as television). Psychological research has consistently shown the increased personal involvement on a gambling activity can increase the illusion of control that in turn may facilitate increased gambling. The interactive nature of the Internet may therefore provide a convenient way of increasing such personal involvement.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2003). Internet gambling: Issues, concerns and recommendations. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6, 557-568.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005).  The therapeutic value of videogames. In J. Goldstein & J. Raessens (Eds.), Handbook of Computer Game Studies. pp. 161-171. Boston: MIT Press.

Griffiths, M.D. (2005). Video games and health. British Medical Journal, 331, 122-123.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling psychology: Motivation, emotion and control, Casino and Gaming International, (3)4 (November), 71-76.

Griffiths, M.D. (2009). Casino design: Understanding gaming floor influences on player behaviour. Casino and Gaming International, 5(1), 21-26.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gambling addiction on the Internet. In K. Young & C. Nabuco de Abreu (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook for Evaluation and Treatment. pp. 91-111. New York: Wiley.

Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, J. (2003). The environmental psychology of gambling. In G. Reith (Ed.), Gambling: Who wins? Who Loses? pp. 277-292. New York: Prometheus Books.

Griffiths, M.D., Wood, R.T.A., Parke, J. & Parke, A. (2006). Dissociative states in problem gambling. In C. Allcock (Ed.). Current Issues Related To Dissociation. pp.27-37. Melbourne: Australian Gaming Council.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Beyond illusion of control: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of gambling in the context of information technology. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 250-260.

Wood, R.T.A., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, A. (2007). Experiences of time loss among videogame players: An empirical study. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 45-56.