Why some kids get smarter by playing video games

learning-gamesGames are addictive.

Just try asking your 14-year-old to put down Candy Crush Saga for a few minutes, and there's a good chance you’ll encounter some serious resistance.

But there’s more to the story than that.

When psychologist Jane McGonigal suffered a debilitating concussion, it looked like her career was over. But over the painful months, she healed her brain with the help of games and a “gaming mindset.”

She lays out the secrets to her healing, and many other benefits to game playing in her book, Superbetter (citation and links below). SuperBetter: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient--Powered by the Science of Games

But let’s get back to your game-addicted teen.

There’s a state of mind caused by total engagement in an activity. It’s popularly referred to as being “in the zone.” It turns out video games are a nearly perfect way to get into the zone.

Over the last 20 years or so, cognitive scientists and athletic coaches have studied this state intensely. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term “flow” to describe this state. (Just trying to spell his last name can put some people into a state of total engagement. It’s pronounced “chick-SENT-me-high.”)

It seems that to be in flow you have to have two things going on. First, you have to feel challenged. Watching TV, or even listening to good music won’t help. Second, you have to have sufficient skills to overcome the challenge, or at least feel you can keep on trying.

Games fit the criteria perfectly. You’ve got a specific challenge. Once you succeed, you go up to the next level, where the challenge is slightly harder.

When you’re in flow, you’re able to block out pain and other distractions. Your heart rate drops. Research shows that flow can reduce the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Flow also produces extreme happiness, even euphoria and ecstasy.

Is it any wonder you child won’t give up the iPad?

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The best thing about flow is that you have to be challenged or it won’t work. And this is where all the benefits of flow come into play.

When your child is playing any of these games, she’s training herself to be tenacious. There is always a solution, and when you figure it out the challenge just gets harder. Neural pathways for persistence, problem-solving, and learning start to form in the brain.

Your child might be playing games he should be studying, but the game could actually program him to be better at studying when he finally gets around to it. Gaming helps him “practice” getting into flow, making it easier to do in non-game situations.

The benefits of flow aren’t just academic. People who frequently enter this state tend to be happier, physically healthier, even more creative and innovative. Eventually they might seek out new activities that can induce the flow state.

Yogis and Buddhist monks have known about flow for centuries.The modern pioneers of flow are extreme athletes. But thanks to online games, your child can tap into the zone, gain all the benefits, without the need to snowboard off an alpine cliff.

Sources cited in this article:

McGonigals’s book:

A free, flow-inducing game on a website that my anti-virus software says is safe: http://play.famobi.com/flow-free

A great TEDTalk given by Csikszentmihalyi on flow: http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow?language=en#t-318966

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