Want a smart kid? Let them play (video games).

Video games may be a convenient whipping boy for many of society's problems, but they have their benefits as well. According to a new paper from the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, video games teach spatial relations, problem solving, and persistence.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Video games help players develop spacial relation skills and reaction time, according to a new study. Here, Sacramento Police Officer Vance Chandler trains on a video game developed by the US Army in Sacramento, Calif., Nov. 20.

To much of the media much of the time, video games are a convenient whipping boy for all of society's problems: they distract the youth from social interaction and school, they encourage violence, they reward the meaningless wasting of time. It has always been clear that this view is (at best) half right, and that there's more going on in the world of video games than that, and a paper entitled "The Benefits of Playing Video Games" (from the Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands) does a great job of exploring the sunny side of the industry.

Overlooked in much of the popular obsession with the harm caused by video games are two really important points: First of all, games have changed immeasurably over the past decade, becoming far more complex and social.

Secondly: all video games are not alike. More accurately, they vary wildly in terms of tone, scope, objectives, and gameplay style – The Sims franchise is nothing like Civilization which is nothing like Call of Duty which is nothing like Minecraft. "The Benefits of Playing Video Games" likens making a broad assertion about all games to making a broad assertion about the health value of food in general – you really need to get more specific.

And like food, video games are no luxury – they're essentially omnipresent, with 97% of children and adolescents playing at least an hour of video games a day, and the industry earning more than double in 2010 ($25 billion) what Hollywood's box office sales were in the same year ($10.8 billion.)

That in mind, what's to like about the way these ubiquitous, sprawling, financially lucrative entertainment properties are shaping our kids' brains? Quite a bit, argues the paper. Games (particularly shooters) are one of the fastest ways to develop spatial relations skills. They're actually good at teaching problem solving. They're a legitimate creative outlet. And, more important than all of those points:

They're brilliant motivators.

Games build skills through repetition and variation, by adding a storytelling context that make exercises seem both fun and part of some greater whole, and by rewarding persistent effort. They're born teaching tools, even if they're not often deployed that way.

Even more interestingly: games actually help kids view intelligence productively, a meta-benefit that many other future benefits flow from. What does that mean? You can praise a child for being smart – saying, in effect, "you are smart, and if you succeed it's because of that innate quality, and if you fail, you must not be smart." Result: a kid afraid to take risks and fail because of what it might mean to their self-image. It's the "entity theory" of intelligence.

Or you can praise a child for working hard and trying to figure a problem out, encouraging the effort, and suggesting that you can get smarter and better via hard work. That's the "incremental theory" of intelligence, and it's the road to glory in terms of real achievement in life – and it's something that games, with their ramping difficulty levels, neatly solvable problems, and big "you did it!" reward screens directly supports.

The future of education, therefore, may not be games versus the classroom; it may be games as the classroom, or at least a significant part of it. And we can either embrace that prospect or panic about it. The incremental theory of intelligence seems to suggest that if we plug away it, we'll get better and better, to the benefit of all.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.