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Video games, like many other ways of culture and leisure, have been widely criticized for their alleged psychological damage. In this sense, and although it is true that many types of entertainment can cause addiction, the truth is that in general, video games are not bad for people but, depending on what their mechanisms are, they can even be beneficial at a psychological and physical level -as is the case of exercise games.
In the following article, we are going to review what video games are, their history and types that exist, what the addiction to this form of entertainment is about, which are the benefits of playing from a psychological point of view and, to sum up, what advantages and disadvantages can video games offer their users.
Given the great variety of video game formats that exist nowadays, it is difficult to define this form of entertainment beyond saying that it is a type of game that requires electronic support, including images in video format (although, for instance, a video game designed specifically for blind people would not include this component).
To be able to play video games, a specific platform is needed and usually also a controller, such as a handset or a joystick. Although traditionally the game support has been video consoles such as the famous PlayStation or GameBoy, the beginning of the history of video games is associated with arcade machines, while computers and more recently mobile phones have been gaining importance as alternative platforms.
The first video games appeared from the technological advances in other areas; for instance, in 1948 "Tennis for two" came out, a table-tennis version based on the screens of the radars that would give rise to Pong in 1972. The emergence of the arcade machines, which worked with coins, meant that the general public came into contact with this form of leisure.
There are many types of video games; some examples are the shooters, role-playing games (RPG) (based on the format of Dungeons & Dragons), strategy, horror, tower defense (such as the famous Clash Royale), educational or exercise games. On the other hand, we can also talk about video games based on augmented reality and virtual reality, which are likely to be widespread in a few years.
The progress of the video game industry in the last decade and the scientific research around this mean have favored the emergence of games with obvious psychological benefits for children and adults -and designs specifically to help the user somehow, such as "Brain Training," which helps with the cognitive functions.
In the first place, playing video games can be really pleasant; this is a significant factor, and it should not be ignored. Beyond this, depending on the game, a video game can be useful to relax and reduce the level of stress, to achieve a pleasant state of concentration, to release tensions and, in some cases, as with books or films, to feel intense and even cathartic emotions.
According to some studies (for instance Green and Bavelier, 2003), playing action video games improves coordination between eyes and hands, resistance to distraction and visual perception in general. More broadly, the American Psychological Association has confirmed that some types of video games improve dexterity and problem-solving.
So, the benefits of video games depend on the type of game it is played. For instance, educational games have existed for many years. The benefits of cooperative video games have been studied, and it has been stated that they help children at school, and as we have already said, there are different types of games to exercise memory, attention and other cognitive processes that have become popular among older people.
As technology advances and entirely new concepts are developed, the benefits of playing video games become visible in unexpected areas. A good example is the famous Pokémon GO, designed with the aim of promoting physical activity for young people.
In the same line, exercise video games can be very beneficial for the health of our body, such as any other kind of light or moderate physical exercise. Besides Pokémon Go and similar games, among the video games of this type, we can find the Dance Dance Revolution saga, the pioneer in dance games, and other very diverse games created for Nintendo Wii consoles.
According to many people, the main downside of playing video games is the risk of addiction. However, there is not enough support in the scientific community to claim that this type of addiction constitutes a disorder distinct from pathological gambling, which is included in diagnostic manuals such as the DSM.
For now, the available data do not allow us to confirm the accusations that have been made to video games -both in relation to the supposed negative consequences at a psychological level of playing a lot and to those of exposure to the typical violence of many games.
In any case, as a meta-analysis by Ferguson and colleagues (2011) reveals, video game addiction appears to be the consequence of other underlying problems rather than the cause of psychological symptoms. For example, an adolescent is more likely to become addicted to a video game if he or she has difficulty interacting with peers.
It is undeniable, on the other hand, that video game addiction can be very harmful to health in the sense that it implies the lack of physical exercise. A sedentary lifestyle promotes a high number of health problems and diseases, mainly if it is associated to an inappropriate diet.
American Psychological Association (11 August 2008). Playing video games offers learning across life span. Newswise. Retrieved 7 May 2018 from http://www.newswise.com//articles/view/543366/
Ferguson, C. J., Coulson, M. & Barnett Griffiths, J. (2011). Video game addiction. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 45(12): 1573-1576.
Green, C. S. & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature, 423(6939): 534–537.