We are gaming more than ever — over seven hours a week in the U.S., according to State of Online Gaming’s 2019 report — which often brings to mind a cliched vision of a sullen, bleary-eyed teen parked on the couch, washing cheese curls down with Mountain Dew as day fades into night.
The reality is far more nuanced. In fact, it has been discovered that gaming has its benefits, chief among them the fact that it improves creativity. That was the conclusion reached by a 2019 Iowa State study, though with the caveat that certain conditions had to be met.
In the study, researchers divided 352 students into four groups and asked them to perform different tasks for 40 minutes. Two of the groups were asked to play the video game Minecraft, one after being given basic instruction about the game, the other while being told to be as creative as possible during play. A third played another video game, NASCAR, and a fourth watched television.
After the 40-minute period elapsed, all the students were required to undergo a test of their creativity, which involved drawing their version of a fictional creature from another planet. And it was discovered that those who played Minecraft without being told to be creative scored highest. (Those who were told to be as creative as possible during play, meanwhile, fared worst, for reasons the researchers could not fathom. The best guess is that the students exhausted their creativity during play.)
As psychology professor Doug Gentile put it in a news release:
“It’s not just that Minecraft can help induce creativity. There seems to be something about choosing to do it that also matters.”
Studies at Penn State in 2008 and Michigan State in 2011 reached similar conclusions about gaming and creativity, and respected game designer Jane McGonigal has been particularly insightful on the subject over the years. McGonigal, who in a 2010 TED talk said that “we become the best version of ourselves” while gaming, added in a 2015 interview with MacLean’s that challenging oneself in this virtual realm “amps up the dopamine available in the reward pathways of your brain, which increases your motivation and willpower.” She went on to call gaming “one of the strongest drivers of work ethic” and added that once she gets that dopamine rush, she feels a need to face down an everyday challenge.
That, of course, is a challenge unto itself, as she pointed out:
“You are priming your brain to do great things, but you need to step away from the game if you’re going to get that benefit.”
In other words, one must put down the remote (not to mention the cheese curls and the Mountain Dew) in order to fully realize the creative benefits gaming can provide. That might be the most important step of all.