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.