February 4, 2020
Video games are an entertainment medium that transcends age and gender, decades and trends, and big cities and small towns. They can make us laugh. They can make us dream. They can get our adrenaline pumping. And, on occasion, they can make us cry.
At their very core, though, video games are fun. A lot of fun. They offer a respite from all of the political, social and cultural battles that seem to take up more and more of each of our days.
They’re social experiences. Families share games together. Neighbors and friends will gather to play. And strangers from around the world congregate online for communal moments. Video games offer players a way to relieve stress, dream of a better world, be the hero and escape from the pressures of the everyday, regardless of whether they prefer a mobile game like Candy Crush or a big budget AAA title like Marvel’s Spider-Man.
The fact is, there’s a game for everybody. Around the globe, a staggering 2.6 billion people — nearly one-third of the world’s population — play video games regularly. Three-quarters of American households have a gamer living there and 65% of American adults play video games. The average player has been enjoying them for 14 years, in fact.
It’s not hard to see why. Playing video games unlocks our imagination and challenges our perceptions of what’s possible. People of all ages are using games to explore new worlds, discover history, and rediscover the timeless joy of play.
The benefits don’t end there, though. Games also reinforce a number of softer skills, from cultural awareness and sensitivity to building confidence and teaching strategic thinking. Games spark creativity, train players to solve problems, encourage communication and form the bonds of friendship.
Before diving too deeply into the benefits of play, though, it helps to know who the players are. While many people resist the title of “gamer,” because of outdated stereotypes, they still actively enjoy video games. Today’s average player is 33 years-old. The vast majority — some 70% — are 18 and over in the U.S. Women make up 45% of the player base and the number of adult women playing video games in the U.S. is greater than the player base made up of boys under the age of 18.
Over half of video game players in the U.S. are college educated — far higher than the general population. They are also more likely to have a creative hobby, meditate, or play a musical instrument.
Multigenerational households of players are increasingly common with 57% of parents playing games with their children at least weekly (and 70% of those parents say games have a positive influence on their children’s lives). Playtime doesn’t just extend to kids, either; 16% of married couples say they regularly play games with their spouses. And 55% play with friends.
That’s a lot of numbers, but they all boil down to one fact: Games bring people together. In a time where surveys find that more people feel lonely, despite being more connected than ever, video games create a community for millions of people, one that emphasizes fun and inclusiveness, rather than divisiveness.
It’s a pressure valve from the stresses we face on a regular basis. Anxiety is soaring among Americans, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Games offer a chance to escape all of that, spend time with friends or immerse yourself in a fantasy world where you control your own fate. There’s a joy that accompanies booting up a game and diving in.
And this joy is resulting in tangible benefits.
In the game world, everyone is on equal footing. The rules and abilities of the characters they inhabit are the same. Things that people might judge others on in the real world —gender, height, age, physical abilities — aren’t factors. It’s not about who you are, but how you play.
Grandmothers play Words With Friends against students. Your opponent in a game of Madden could be a music superstar taking a break from recording or a cancer patient recovering from chemo. That person who bested you in a game of Fortnite? They might have a disability that prevents them from taking part in other real world activities.
Anyone can play. And most of us do. This universality provides a mechanism to connect people of all backgrounds and beliefs. That, ultimately, allows players to put themselves in the shoes of others, leading to sympathy and compassion.
Video games are also an equalizer for people with physical challenges. A 2008 study found that one out of five casual video game players had some sort of impairment.
And devices like the Xbox Adaptive Controller allow differently able players to use their hands, elbows, toes, external buttons, joysticks and a variety of mounts to control games. This can give them a sense of accomplishment and battle feelings of depression.
Virtual reality and augmented reality systems are poised to further expand that accessibility, allowing players to fully immerse themselves in experiences they may not be able to otherwise.
Part of the key to video games’ inclusive nature is the community they form among players. Whether it’s a night in with family, a gathering of old friends that are spread across the country or even a squad of people from other nations who met and became friends online, but have never seen each other face to face, the shared experience of the game results in camaraderie.
Just like people bond over bands or sports teams, video games offer the same kind of shared experience. That experience is enhanced, though, because video games unite people in real time and is a fluid, ever-changing event.
The community extends well beyond the people just playing a game together, though. Message boards, YouTube, Twitch and esports events all bring people together and broaden the video game society.
In some cases, games act as a rallying point to identify and discuss larger problems. ClimateFortnite, for instance, is a popular channel on Twitch where climate scientists discuss global warming while playing Fortnite. It’s a way to educate players and pass along facts about climate change to subscribers without lecturing them.
Esports, meanwhile, have proven to be an especially powerful community-building tool. Just as fans of Major League Baseball or the NFL bond over a favorite player or team, Millennials and Generation Z share the same enthusiasm for games, teams and players. That’s something that might be confusing to some older generations, but esports are one of the ways that the first generation of true digital natives is innovating the concepts of entertainment and community — and they’re likely to continue to take those concepts to places we cannot imagine.
It’s fairly well known that playing video games can help improve hand-eye coordination. But the skills players acquire in game go far beyond that. Video games instill teamwork, collaboration and the importance of relying on others to achieve a common goal.
Games, particularly multiplayer ones, teach players how to rely on others to complete tasks. That’s true in everything from Call of Duty to Mario Party. Cooperation and collaboration are not skills that always come easily. And there are often some roadblocks to achieving them. But playing games offers opportunities to improve those qualities in an engaging way without it seeming like work.
Different game types build other sorts of skills. Puzzle games teach problem-solving. Real-time action games improve fine motor skills, memory, response time and the aforementioned hand-eye coordination. Strategy games encourage players to make plans, manage resources and balance competing objectives.
Video games also offer people who are introverted or who might struggle with real-world interactions the chance to be a vital part of a team — and sometimes to lead that squad. That’s an incredibly empowering sensation for someone who might not have the opportunity to experience it often, if at all, in the real world, whether because they’re too young, or suffer from social anxieties, or a lack of self confidence.
That feeling of isolation isn’t an unusual one in today’s world. We’re constantly connected to each other, reacting to the news of the moment or posting curated lives on social media. This phenomenon also enables us to self-select our communication channels and mediums, which can make it hard to see things from other people’s perspectives, ultimately widening societal divides.
Games let you experience a different perspective more than any other entertainment medium. Movies and books let you imagine or see what it’s like to be someone who looks and acts different than you. Games, particularly role-playing games, let you experience what it’s like to be that character firsthand.
In Salaam, for instance, players live the life of a refugee, avoiding bombs, finding water and searching out energy points, as they journey from a warzone to a peaceful life.
Adventure games with a strong story component, such as The Last of Us, get you emotionally invested in characters. That’s not uncommon in any entertainment medium. But in games, you get to make decisions for those characters. If you make a bad choice, they pay the consequence and that decision could affect the rest of the game. The player learns something from that.
For younger players, games offer a chance to learn what it’s like to be someone else. That’s true for adults as well, but it’s also a chance for them to rediscover the childhood joy of make-believe.
Virtual reality games are especially useful in this regard. They’ve been widely recognized as a tool for conflict resolution. Wal-Mart, for instance, uses a VR simulation to train employees how to handle everything from the Black Friday crowd, to customer service skills, and new company technology and equipment. And the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has undertaken research to identify ways in which video games can be used to foster understanding around the world. World Rescue puts players in five countries, where they help five separate heroes solve global problems, from displacement to drought, at a community level. Another idea being discussed is how to use games to educate young people on climate change.
Games also put players in much more diverse settings than many people experience in their everyday lives. As you play a multiplayer game, you’re working with people from different places and different backgrounds. Ultimately, games provide a mechanism to connect people of all backgrounds and beliefs.
Of course, video games aren’t some panacea that can overcome all of the societal anxiety that exists today. But the joy and well-being generated through play helps people learn to see themselves from another person’s perspective and grow compassion.
Despite the many benefits of games, a vocal group of detractors has made them the scapegoat for societal problems. It’s an old, tired page from a long-outdated playbook, and one pretty much every entertainment medium, from music to movies to comic books, has been the target of at one point or another.
Those same detractors have raised claims of overuse. Yet, neither they nor society-at-large questions the habits of someone who binge watches an entire television series on Netflix over a weekend. (Doing so, in fact, is often celebrated.)
Playing video games, like watching a movie, reading a book or devouring multiple seasons of a favorite show, is a form of escapism that provides an avenue for people to de-stress.
In an ‘always on’ culture where people work longer hours than ever, take less vacation, and are always working to answer the last email or make the next conference call, video games are a healthy distraction that allow people to switch off the pressures in their lives through an immersive experience that maintains, and in some cases enhances, our well-being.
Bridging the chasms of the modern world is something that will take time, empathy and a lot of hard work. But a good first step can be as simple as just having fun. The joy of playing video games unlocks our imaginations and challenges our perceptions of what’s possible.
In a time that can be stressful or seem overwhelming, play has the power to the change the world for the better. And that has never been more important.