by Patrick Cox
July 18, 2016

Before Pokémon Go burst onto the scene, I’d already planned to write about the cognitive and health benefits of video games. What prompted me was an article on a feminist website that I took issue with. It discussed the problem of adult men who “still” play video games.

Just like other video games, Pokémon Go has spawned some concern. But, I’m convinced that the game’s success is extremely positive for two main reasons.

Video games improve brain function and mental health

First, video games provide huge benefits for our most important body part… the brain. This has implications for personal health, healthcare budgets, and even the so-called gender gap in the sciences.

Today, researchers are looking at the health rewards of gaming. This American Psychological Association article, “The Benefits of Playing Video Games,” describes  significant benefits. These include an increased ability to learn, improved health, and better social skills.

It’s been known for some time that people who play combat/action video games have better reaction times. In fact, gaming improves driving skills. This shouldn’t be surprising. Video games require quick decisions and physical responses to unexpected stimuli.

People who don’t play video games may be surprised at how physical it is. Though gamers are often described as inactive, a tough game can get my heart pounding and leave me sweating. It’s not as taxing as standard exercise, but it’s better than passively watching television.

Pokémon Go is the newest fitness craze

Pokémon Go requires real exercise and encourages social interaction, as it engages and improves the mind’s puzzle-solving abilities. The basics of the game are based on an older mobile fitness game, and many of these features remain in Pokémon Go. For example, players have to walk up to 10 kilometers to hatch the Pokémon eggs they collect. This means that millions of players are outside and engaged in cardiovascular exercise. To get a feel for the game, you might watch this video.

My son, who attends the University of Central Florida, says that he’s never seen so many students walking around the campus before… most of them playing the game. A meme has appeared on social media: Pokémon Go accomplished overnight what Michelle Obama’s Move program couldn’t in seven years.

This physical component may help explain why so many therapists have noted the psychological benefits of Pokémon Go. Though it’s known that exercise and social interaction can help depression, it can be hard to get patients to comply. But, Pokémon Go integrates both.

People who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other disorders are posting comments on Twitter about how much better they feel after playing the game. Here’s an article that describes this trend.

Video games can help girls excel in math and science

Females generally have lower spatial relations abilities than males. Scientists at the University of Toronto speculated that this is partly due to the fact that girls don’t play the same sports and video games that help boys develop those skills. So they set out to study how violent combat games impact cognition in both male and female players.

In recent years, studies have shown that violent combat games are able to help users master mathematics and other hard sciences. The University of Toronto study, published in Psychological Science, showed that both male and female subjects made significant cognitive improvements playing first person shooter (FPS) games. Specifically, they found improved “mental rotation ability,” a spatial relations skill associated with greater success in math.

The study indicates that females can acquire the same cognitive skills that give men an advantage in STEM fields by playing FPS games.

In a Science Daily article about the study, the author summarizes:

University of Toronto researchers have discovered that differences between men and women on some tasks that require spatial skills are largely eliminated after both groups play a video game for only a few hours.

The research… suggests that a new approach involving action video games can be used to improve spatial skills that are essential for everyday activities such as reading a map, driving a car, assembling a barbeque or learning advanced math.

I refuse to allow my daughter to be put off by gender stereotypes. That’s why we play a variety of combat games together. I’d like to add, she’s acing her college math and biology classes. Maybe it would be better for people to stop worrying so much about violence and gender stereotypes and play Doom 4 with their kids.

My son needs no encouragement to play violent action video games. Despite spending too much time on the multiplayer Overwatch game, he’s graduating this semester with nearly a four-point grade average in molecular biology.

Video gaming can help prevent dementia in older people

Older people may reap the most reward from video games. Some cognitive decline has genetic origins, but some comes from the simple inactivity that comes with aging. Fortunately, gaming can help both groups as this study points out. Increasingly, memory therapists are using games to improve cognition in dementia patients. That means killing virtual zombies now could help prevent an actual  zombie apocalypse later.

Gaming should be part of everybody’s training program, along with cardiovascular and strength training. Stop watching TV and download the Pokémon Go app. Or buy a game console and pick up a controller for your cognitive health and happiness.

If you’re put off by realism and gore, play Ratchet & Clank. Or if you’re concerned that gaming is too hard, remember it’s supposed to be a challenge. Otherwise, your brain wouldn’t have to adapt. Just start on “easy” mode… (like you would with weight training, using less weight at first). You will get better.

— This essay originally appeared at Mauldin Economics