Jennifer Wilber is a teacher and writer. She holds a B.A. in English and an Associate's in Computer Game Design. She is a life-long gamer.
The Social Benefits of Video Games
Though video games have become a popular pastime for children and adults alike, negative stereotypes of gamers still persist. Conventional wisdom suggests that children and adults who spend a lot of their free time playing video games are socially inept and that video games may stunt the social development of children. But is this true? Recent research suggests that video games may have many social benefits and that certain types of games may even help boost social skills in children who struggle socially, such as those on the autism spectrum.
How Video Games Promote Social Skills
Though there is a widespread belief that gamers are socially isolated, many modern video games actually encourage social behavior in players. Most gamers (over 70%) play video games with one or more of their friends. Gamers who play video games with friends may play either cooperatively (where two or more players work together to achieve the goal of the game) or competitively (where each player competes against the other player or players) (Granic et al. 73).
How Cooperative Video Games Improve Social Skills
Playing cooperative (or "co-op") video games may help children to learn how to work together with others. 97% of children (99% of boys and 94% of girls) play some form video games, according to surveys conducted by Pew Research Center and the MacArthur Foundation between 2007 and 2008. Of the young gamers surveyed, two-thirds reported that they play video games to socialize face-to-face with their friends and family (compared to just over 25% who play online with their Internet friends) (Irvine). Video games that feature "couch co-op" (that is, cooperative video games that allow players to play together on the same console) allow players to interact with each other face-to-face while playing the game. Talking about the game and discussing strategies can help players learn to be part of a team and to improve their conversation skills.
How Multiplayer Games Boost Social Skills
Online multiplayer games can also help players to improve their social skills. In particular, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (or "MMORPGs"), such as World of Warcraft, and social networking games, such as FarmVille, may improve players' social skills and encourage pro-social behaviors. According to Isabela Granic in the journal American Psychologist, "[i]n these virtual social communities, decisions need to be made on the fly about whom to trust, whom to reject, and how to most effectively lead a group." Essentially, players need to make snap social judgments while playing these types of social games if they hope to do well in the game. She goes on to state that "[g]iven these immersive social contexts, we propose that gamers are rapidly learning social skills and pro-social behavior that might generalize to their peer and family relations outside the gaming environment." There is evidence that social skills players learn within social online video game environments translate to their real-world interactions (Granic et al. 73).
Video Games Designed Specifically for Social Skills
These social benefits of playing video games are greatest when players play games specifically designed to reward pro-social behaviors such as effective cooperation, support, and helping other players. According to Isabela Granic, one study showed "that children who played more pro-social games at the beginning of the school year were more likely to exhibit helpful behaviors later that year." Several studies have also found that children who play games with civic experiences, such as the MMORPG Guild Wars 2, are more likely to participate in social or civic activities (such as volunteering, fundraising for charity, and encouraging others to vote in elections) at school and in their everyday lives. It seems that playing video games that encourage cooperation, helping each other, and engaging in social causes may lay the groundwork for developing these behaviors in real world situations (Granic et al. 73).
Can Violent Games Also Have Some Social Benefits?
It is also interesting to note that these pro-social behaviors are promoted not only by non-violent video games, but by some violent games as well. Recent research has found that certain types of violent video games may be just as effective at promoting pro-social behaviors in players as their non-violent counterparts. The main factor in determining if a violent video game, such as a first-person shooter, will promote pro-social behaviors or violent, antisocial behaviors in gamers seems to be whether a player is more inclined to play video games competitively or cooperatively. Playing violent video games socially with other players, as opposed to playing alone, has been shown to reduce feelings of hostility in players (Granic et al 73). Isabela Granic's article "The Benefits of Playing Video Games" in American Psychologist didn't make it clear, however, whether or not these studies accounted for the possibility that gamers who lack pro-social behaviors and/or already have more violent or antisocial personality traits are simply more likely to be drawn to competitive or single-player gaming experiences than to cooperative types of video games.
Video Games' Affect on Those on the Autism Spectrum
While certain types of video games have been shown to have social benefits for gamers in general, individuals on the autism spectrum especially may benefit socially from playing video games. Children on the autism spectrum often have trouble understanding the basics of communication and social interaction, and as a result have a more difficult time making friends than their neurotypical peers. Despite these social difficulties, autistic individuals tend to have well-developed visual perceptual skills and generally respond very well to visual stimuli. Because of this, it has been suggested that video games may be useful in the treatment and education of children and adults on the autism spectrum (Nauert). Certain types of video games that encourage social behaviors may help autistic players to learn how to interact with others one-on-one or as a group and how to pick up on social cues during social interactions (Zimmerman).
How Can Video Games Help Autistic Kids?
There are a number of ways in which video games can promote the development of social skills in autistic children. Playing video games in a group setting can provide a semi-structured non-threatening environment for autistic children to develop and practice their social skills. Children may discuss who has the most points or who is ahead in the game they are playing while playing competitively against each other. This type of play encourages children to learn about sportsmanship in a safe environment. Playing co-op games can help teach autistic children how to interact with other children as part of a group, as autistic children tend to have difficulty communicating and interacting as part of a group. By communicating with their teammates in a video game, they are strengthening their communication skills and learning valuable social skills that may carry over to real life interactions (Zimmerman).
The social interaction in video games can also help these children to hone their critical thinking skills. Marc Zimmerman, founder of The Language Express, Inc., states that "[p]laying video games with other kids focuses your child on working on critical thinking skills." He goes on to explain that "[t]his is one of the big advantages to the social interaction with others during video game play." By discussing the game while playing together with other children, they can learn to think more critically about the game and about their social interactions (Zimmerman).
Despite the negative stereotypes surrounding gaming, video games can be used to help children develop social skills. Video games can improve leadership skills, pro-social behaviors, and communication skills in children. Children on the autism spectrum in particular may benefit greatly from playing video games as part of their treatment. Video games may help them to learn how to communicate with and fit in with other children easier. In moderation, playing video games can be a great way to help children learn how to become well-rounded social individuals.
Granic, Isabela, Adam Lobel, and Rutger C. M. E. Engels. "The Benefits of Playing Video Games." American Psychologist 69.1 (2014): 66-78. Web.
Irvine, Martha. "Survey: 97 Percent Of Children Play Video Games." The Huffington Post. HuffingtonPost.com, 17 Oct. 2008. Web. 18 Feb. 2015.
Nauert, Rick, PhD. "Video Games May Enhance Social Skills for Autistic Youth." PsychCentral.com. Psych Central, 6 Sept. 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
Zimmerman, Marc. "3 Ways Group Video Games Help Your Child to Improve Social Skills." The Social Express. Language Express, Inc, 17 Aug. 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2015.
© 2017 Jennifer Wilber
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