Video games level up life skills

Playing games in a group can strengthen abilities such as communication and resourcefulness

Playing video games such as Minecraft can help sharpen communication skills, resourcefulness and the ability to adapt to changing situations, a new study finds.

Enderflame_Blackwings/Pixabay (CC0)

When gamers band together to defeat a three-headed zombie dragon boss, they may not be thinking much about school or work. Still, they are likely building skills that will come in handy in the real world, a new study finds. Researchers in Scotland found that playing video games in a group can improve young adults’ communication skills and resourcefulness. It also can make them better at adapting to new situations.

Sharpening those skills can help someone get a job or advance in a career. “Employers want you to think for yourself and adapt to changing situations,” says Matthew Barr, who conducted the new study. He studies video games and gamer culture at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He also played a lot of video games while growing up.

From his own experience, Barr knows that video games demand quick thinking. “Games are always keeping you on your toes. You have to be able to figure out what to do if you’re just dropped into a situation,” he says. Multiplayer games also require good communication among players.

Barr wanted to know whether these gaming skills carry over into real life. So he recruited 16 university students to play eight different video games. The students played in a computer lab over an eight-week period. They could come and go whenever they wanted to, but each had to play for a total of 14 hours.

Another group of students did not play any games at the lab. This was the control group. To understand the effect of a change in behavior, scientists must compare at least two groups. One or more groups will change their behavior. The control group, in contrast, makes no changes.

The games covered a variety of genres. For example, Borderlands 2 is an action-packed role-playing game. Players work together to defeat enemies and collect loot. Minecraft is a game about gathering resources and constructing a world. Portal 2 is a puzzle game that requires creative thinking. Six of the games in the study included ways for players to work together in the game itself. Two of the games were single-player only. But the students talked through these games as they played. So all of the games prompted conversation and cooperation.

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Students play Borderlands 2 during a study at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. Playing this game and others helped most of the students build life skills.
M. Barr

Both before and after the study, students in both groups filled out three questionnaires about their real-life skills. One measured their communication skills, such as talking and listening. Another measured adaptability. This investigated how well people deal with changing situations. The third questionnaire looked at resourcefulness. This includes problem-solving  and knowing when to ask for help.

Each questionnaire included a series of statements. Participants rated how true each statement seemed. One statement related to communication skill, for example, was “I feel nervous in social situations.” A statement related to resourcefulness was, “When faced with a difficult problem, I try to approach its solution in a systematic way.”

Barr found that after two months of playing video games regularly, students’ scores on all three skills improved. Resourcefulness scores increased significantly for 81 percent of the gamers. Adaptability scores increased for 75 percent. And communication skills scores increased for 69 percent of gamers.

In contrast, fewer than half of the students in the control group improved their scores in each of the three areas.

Barr’s results appear in the October issue of Computers & Education.

Part of the team

Barr also interviewed the study participants about the experience. Several students told him that playing games on a team helped to not only break down their anxieties but also to build their confidence. In that sense, he believes sports and video games may build similar life skills. “It’s kind of like joining the hockey team,” he says.

Barr thinks schools should have video games as extracurricular activities — just like sports. A school could set up a video game room, for example, or start a gaming club on campus.

Beverley Oliver is an expert in education at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. She wasn’t involved in the study. She isn’t convinced that schools should add a video game room. “Playing games develops skills,” she says. “This is no surprise.” But that’s not only true of video games. The game could just as easily be hopscotch or Monopoly, she notes. And there are other ways to sharpen the same life skills that might also improve with gaming.

Oliver also worries about the potential downsides to video gaming. For example, spending long periods staring into a screen without moving could lead to health problems. The violence in some games also concerns her.

Barr points out that other skill-building activities, such as traditional sports, aren’t for everybody. Video games may be a more fun or effective way for certain students to gain the same kinds of skills. In his opinion, the study results are a perfect excuse to get your game on.  

Kathryn Hulick is a freelance science writer and the author of Strange But True: 10 of the World's Greatest Mysteries Explained, a book about the science of ghosts, aliens and more. She loves hiking, gardening and robots.

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