Boy playing video gamesParents often see video games as little more than virtual babysitters, something to tolerate and occasionally encourage when you have to meet a deadline or need downtime. But new research suggests you can relax—a little. Carefully chosen games can nurture valuable skills, much as sports and other activities do.

Although researchers still worry about a potential link between violent games and aggression, they’ve found action games can create benefits. Daphne Bavelier, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, has conducted more than 20 studies on the topic. She and other researchers conclude action games are “far from mindless.” Indeed, they may give kids advantages in areas including:

  • Attention. Gaming may teach youngsters to screen out distractions so they can focus on the task at hand. Bavalier’s research also suggests gamers can switch tasks faster than non-gamers, making them better multitaskers.
  • Vision. Bavalier found gamers’ vision is more acute. To be certain video games were responsible, she tested non-gamers and trained them to play video games. Not only did their visual acuity improve, the improvement was durable over as much as two years, especially for contrast sensitivity (or the ability to detect subtle shades of gray).
  • Spatial awareness. The ability to mentally manipulate 3-D figures helps students succeed in math and engineering. Researchers say scores on this kind of test improve after students have experience with video games, especially those in three-dimensional environments.
  • Social skills. Most teens play games with others, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. The project found games that require strategy and problem-solving often promote conversation as kids talk with each other, help each other, and share knowledge together. Other researchers say games that require cooperation to achieve a pro-social goal encourage people to help each other in real life.
  • Emotional release. At Texas A&M University, Dr. Christopher Ferguson gave 100 teens a frustrating task, then randomly assigned them to either play no video game, play a non-violent game, play a violent game as the “good guy,” or play a violent game as the “bad guy.” Teens who played the violent game from either viewpoint reported being less “hostile and depressed.”
  • Self-confidence. Being good at a video game confers the same positive feelings as being good at spelling or soccer. In the book Grand Theft Childhood (Simon & Schuster, 2011), Cheryl K. Olson, a Harvard researcher, concludes games can foster self-esteem and pride, especially in children challenged in other areas.

Keep Tabs on Video Games

To obtain these benefits, vet the games your kids play. Research any game before it comes into the house. Consult family-centered sites like,, or, a site run by Olson. Find basic information about game ratings at

Once a game is in the house, know what’s happening when your child plays. Keep the game system in a public area so you can see the game as it unfolds and observe your child’s responses. Encourage your child to share favorite parts of the game. If you can, learn how to play. Being more involved lets you establish sensible gaming rules. Parents often make the mistake of giving a two-minute warning before game-time ends. For the child immersed in a complicated role-playing game that may not be long enough. One rule, however, should remain firm. Video games should never supplant other activities important for healthy develop­ment. Kids need adult help in creating balanced lives that include exercise, homework, chores, reading, family time, and other beneficial activities. If you’re committed to that kind of balance over the long term, it won’t matter if there’s an extra hour of gaming once in a while.

Carolyn Jabs, MA, mom to three computer-savvy kids, has been writing about families and the Internet for more than 15 years.