Play has long been considered one of the most compelling natural sources of confidence, energy, and optimism in both children and adults. Brian Sutton-Smith (a renowned scholar, educational psychologist, researcher, and teacher) was the first to explore the deeply positive impact of play on the brain.
In an article for Slate, Miranda McGonigal explains, "He observed that most people tend to experience stronger self-confidence, increased physical energy, and powerful positive emotions, like curiosity and excitement, during play. This is a perfect contrast to depression."
Now that we have the technology to actually see the difference between a depressed brain and a brain at play, the neurological data backs up Sutton-Smith's early findings. The parts of the brain that are consistently under-stimulated in someone who is in a depressive state are even more than typically engaged during video game play.
Yep, the hippocampus — that's the part of the brain associated with learning and memory — and the reward pathways — those grooves in our brains that teach us to expect a positive outcome from repeated efforts — get a major jolt from consistent, purposeful video game play. But it's important to understand the difference between purposeful gameplay and escapist gameplay.
Kids who play video games 20-30 hours a week are more likely to be depressed — likely because they are attempting to mitigate their symptoms through gaming. So, while gaming can provide positive stimulation for the depressed mind, it's a slippery slope from productive to compulsive. A staggering 41 percent of video gamers say they play to escape daily life.
Escapist gamers are more likely to become depressed, anxious, and develop social phobias. The logic there? If you use video games as a coping mechanism, you're more apt to neglect the issues in your life, thus allowing them to build on themselves, making the escape of the virtual world that much more appealing.
In McGonigal's article for Slate, she suggests that perspective is the key to getting the benefits of video games minus the drawbacks. "Focus on the way the games are making you better. When you do, you become more likely to believe that the strengths you build while playing are strengths that you can bring to your everyday challenges."
So, who's up for some Call of Duty?