Video games have evolved significantly since their debut in 1958. This evolution has changed the way people interact with gaming — and the way that gaming interacts with people. Now, people with disabilities are discovering the self-care benefits of video games, which can be both mental and physical.
Cognitive and developmental benefits
You may have heard differing opinions on the mental benefits, or detriments, that video games cause. According to Dr. Romeo Vitelli (Psychology Today), media often casts video games in a negative light, however, “Video games have changed in recent years to become more complex, realistic, and social in nature.” Vitelli says researchers are shifting away from the narrative that video games inspire violent or problematic behavior, and are studying the real, long-lasting cognitive benefits of gaming.
According to Dr. Vitelli, these benefits may include:
- Improved problem-solving
- Enhanced spatial awareness
- Greater neural processing and efficiency
- Enhanced attention functioning
- Improved creativity
- Increased flow, relaxation, and social connectivity
These benefits can be useful in a wide variety of situations, such as managing dyslexia and even treating amblyopia or "lazy eye".
Researchers from Electronic Entertainment Design and Research and the University of California San Diego point out that gaming can also have several therapeutic benefits for those with different needs and in different situations. These benefits may include:
- Distraction from pain
- Relief from boredom due to immobility
- Reduction of anxiety and hyperactivity
- Improvement of mood and reduction of sadness
Many of these benefits are similar to those that come from hobbies like sports. Some individuals with disabilities may not be able to participate in various types of sports, so eSports are an option that may help them to feel included, and reap the social, mental and physical benefits of gaming.
With rising trends in remote and online learning, video games have not just been used as therapeutic tools, but as educational tools. According to EdSource, games in the classroom have helped students of all ages connect to their lessons in tangible ways. Games have been designed to teach all kinds of lessons, for all levels of education, including but not limited to:
- Reading and comprehension
Sandbox games, or video games with open worlds such as Minecraft, are also being adapted as educational tools. Because video games are adaptable, they can be tailored to students with different needs or abilities.
Developing good social skills is an important part of both personal and professional development. “Social and prosocial activities are an intrinsic part of the gaming experience with gamers rapidly learning social skills that could generalize to social relationships in the real world,” says Dr. Vitelli.
He cites a study by Isabela Granic, PhD, of Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands. Granic’s research found that over 70% of gamers play with friends. Granic also found that playing simple games such as Angry Birds can improve players’ moods. Gaming, especially online gaming and streaming, may help provide a sense of community and give people with different needs an opportunity to socialize, and even earn supplemental income.
Due to verbal, processing, or social impairments, face-to-face socialization can be difficult or daunting for some people with disabilities. This is where games with chat rooms and chat applications designed to work in-game, like Discord, can create opportunities for socialization for people with impairments. Socializing through online gaming is also an accessible option for people who may spend a significant amount of time in the hospital or on bed rest due to their disability. This can decrease feelings of loneliness and improve their mood, which can even assist healing and recovery.
Video games as sensory play
Sensory play is any activity that stimulates any of the five senses. Research shows that sensory play builds neural pathways, which can enhance complex learning ability and attention span. Sensory play is important for young children, children with disabilities, and even seniors to hone their cognitive skills. There have been video games designed to stimulate the senses, which can be a beneficial aspect of sensory play. Some sensory video games include:
- Disney’s Fantasia: Music Evolved
- Fruit Ninja Kinect
- Just Dance
- Sesame Street: Ready, Set, Grover!
- Candy Crush
Many of these games are available on mobile devices and consoles, so they are accessible where you need them. Some sensory games, like Just Dance, are even multiplayer, which allows the whole family to join in for quality playtime.