I love games. I play everything from the nerdiest strategy games to the silliest improv games, from bocce to table tennis, from Jenga to Scrabble. Games have always been compelling to me, so much so that at times I’ve slipped into various video-game addictions. (These days, I usually avoid video games because of my tendency to get addicted to them.) New games are especially compelling to me because they offer a fresh challenge and feel like an exploration of uncharted territory.
I am driven to play games because they are fun, but fun isn’t the only value games offer. Playing games is a powerful way to improve intelligence, creativity, and social skills. Games also cultivate a variety of specific abilities that are useful in the real world. Play is part of human nature. We were born to play, and play is good for us.
And play isn’t limited to games. I also enjoy doing puzzles, juggling, singing, and dancing. Sports, art, music, and theater are all valuable forms of play as well. Play can just be something unstructured and silly, like a water fight.
The Origins of Play
Of course, humans are not the only animals who play. We’re all familiar with cats and dogs playing, but did you know that most mammals, some birds, some fish, and even ants play? Animals play for many reasons. Some play to become stronger and more coordinated. Some play to practice hunting. Others play to solidify social bonds. Others play to practice working as a team. The experience of play as “fun” is the neurological reward that motivates animals, including ourselves, to get these benefits.1
Richard Restak and Scott Kim write in The Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind that
If a rat is raised in an ‘enriched’ environment – for example, a cage full of toys and gym-like equipment, along with other rats to play with – its brain will develop a greater number of nerve cell connections (synapses) and increased nerve fiber (dendritic) complexity, especially in the hippocampus, where memory is initially encoded. As a result of possessing more complex brain circuitry, environmentally enriched rats perform better on tests measuring learning and spatial memory. … Enhanced brain development and performance occurs in monkeys, cats, and a host of other animals raised in enriched environments.2
For ethical reasons, we do not perform controlled experiments of this kind on human babies, but there is strong evidence that the same principle does apply to our own species. Comparing orphans who were adopted with orphans who were not,
neuroscientists have found striking deficiencies in intellectual and emotional development among infants raised in institutions compared with infants of the same age who are transferred from the institutions into adoptive families. The brains of the children who remain in the institutions have fewer connections linking different parts of the cortex as well as reduced chemical activity, especially in the frontal and temporal areas—two sites important in IQ, memory, and other cognitive functions.2
The researchers think that one of the causes of this difference is the fact that children raised in adoptive families have far more play opportunities than children raised in orphanages.2
Play is how children learn basic skills that they use to navigate the world, making it a classic example of natural learning. They learn to observe, explore, imagine, pretend, and experiment, and they do this through play.3 That’s why, in nature, it is often only the young of a species which plays regularly (wolf cubs, for example). Humans benefit from play at any age, but play is especially important for children.
“Play is not frivolous. Play is essential.” —Isabel Behncke Izquierdo, primatologist4
Playing Your Way to a Stronger Brain
Restak Kim explain that “By learning more, doing more, and experiencing more, we form greater numbers of circuits within the brain and thereby increase its functional power. As a result, we become smarter, faster, and more astute.”2 In other words, the brain is like a bunch of muscles, and play is a form of brain exercise.
Most games require us to use logic, to plan ahead, and to quickly adjust to the behavior of others. Games like Set teach you to quickly recognize patterns. Many games, such as Gobblet, exercise working memory, which makes it stronger.5 Many games involve “spotting trends, drawing connections, and discerning the big picture.”6 Play improves our decision-making ability.7 Play requires executive function. This is the sort of dynamic intelligence that we all need to thrive in the modern world.
There are a number of games that teach specific skills without feeling like learning. People find themselves motivated to master these skills because they are motivated to win (or at least join in the fun). There are, of course, games that require math, language skills, or spatial reasoning. There are also games that require persuasion, interpretation, or an understanding of metaphors and symbolism. If there’s a specific ability you’d like to improve, look for games that require that skill.
However, Stuart Brown, co-author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul contends that play isn’t so much about preparation for specific future tasks as it is about general brain training; play is simply a key element of healthy psychological development.8 What follows is aimed at parents of older children and teens, so if you’re looking for information on the importance of play for young children, please check out this fantastic article from momlovesbest.com.
Playing new games is also an inherently growth-minded activity because you always start as a beginner. You’ve never played the game, after all. So you get to prove to yourself that you can learn and improve, all while having fun!
And although we are motivated to play because play is fun, the happiness we get from play comes with its own benefits. Numerous studies show that increasing our happiness has a positive effect on our intelligence, our creativity, and our ability to handle difficulties and setbacks.9 So if the only reason you play is because it makes you happier, you’re likely to experience increased success as a side-effect anyway.
Sometimes the benefits of play are intentional, as with “brain games,” but, more often than not, the benefits are unplanned or unexpected, as I discovered while solving this jigsaw puzzle.
In her Atlantic article, “In Defense of Play,” Alison Gopnik points out that, while we can acknowledge the benefits of play, we shouldn’t make that the focus:
American parents often act as if play is only valuable if it will produce predictable outcomes.
This isn’t just true about our attitude toward child’s play. We also tend to treat adult play—sport or art or science—as a disguised form of work, something that only has value because it eventually leads to some practical end—physical health or moral uplift.
The irony is that over the long term, both children’s and adults’ play does lead to practical benefits. But it does this precisely because the people who play, whether they are children or adults, aren’t aiming at those practical benefits. The fundamental paradox of play is that in order to be able to reach a variety of new goals in the long run, you have to actively turn away from goal seeking in the short run.
… we should give children the resources and space to play, and do so without insisting that play will have immediate payoffs.10
In other words, if you turn play into a skills-targeted homework assignment, it’s no longer play.
Creativity is a skill that we can learn and improve with practice.11 Many games, such as charades, Dixit, and Snake Oil, teach creativity and provide opportunities to practice it, and nearly all games require improvisation of some kind. The more you practice improvising on the spot, the better you become at it.
Games that require creativity teach us to think independently and force us to take risks, increasing our confidence. Sometimes this creativity is done alone, and other times it’s done in teams, which parallels creativity in the real world.7
“The best inventors are playful. The best players are inventive.” – Dan Pink6
Gopnik explains how certain types of play directly strengthen our imagination muscles:
In the distinctively human activity of pretend play, the experimentation is more internal. Children who pretend, and grown-ups who immerse themselves in the imaginary realms of fiction and drama, are considering what would happen if the world were different, and working out the consequences.10
In other words, open-ended play makes us better at envisioning changes that we might make to our lives or to the world. This may have huge consequences for personal growth and creativity, or even for solving major problems faced by the world.
Many people don’t realize that they’re free to experiment with alternative rules to classic games. For example, I’ve invented over 100 different ways to play Jenga, just by rearranging the blocks into different patterns.
Often kids will do this kind of thing on their own without any encouragement, but feel free to nudge them towards creative freedom. Perhaps all you’d have to do is remind them that they’re free to make up their own rules. Inventing your own, unique versions of games is not only an exercise in creativity, you might invent something that the whole world will want to play. Go forth and make games your own through creative adjustments!
Many games, especially those marketed as strategy games, require strategy. They teach you to plan ahead, evaluate different options, choose priorities, and decide in what order to make your moves. You have to have a long-term strategy that is executed through short-term tactics. You have to adjust your strategy and your tactics based on the actions of other players, and you’ll probably have to change your approach as the game progresses.
Strategy games cultivate logic, awareness, and flexibility. These skills are fundamental to success in school and in life.
When you are assigned a project, you must plan what you’ll do and when, deciding on a logical order and prioritizing based on that order. You’ll frequently have to evaluate options, such as which resources to use and when, just as you would when playing a game like Settlers of Catan.
When you are tackling a complicated story problem in math or science, you must decide what information is relevant and how to use it. You need an overarching strategy for problem-solving, such as identifying key unknowns you’ll have to solve for along the way. And you’ll need short-term tactics, such as writing things down to manage your cognitive load, just as you write down what you’re discovering during a game of Clue.
When you are preparing for a test, you much choose from a variety of study methods, and the way you choose to study should depend, in part, on how soon the exam is. When you have two weeks, you adopt a different strategy than when you’re cramming. If you are cramming, and there isn’t time to learn everything, you have to evaluate trade-offs and make a choice that maximizes the time you have, just as you must do in the final rounds of Abyss.
Strategy games also force you to maintain a running theory about what other people want. If you know what your opponent’s goals are, you can predict his moves and defeat him, but to do so, you have to be able to see things from his perspective. In other words, adding vantage points is the way to gain an advantage. And this holds true in many other situations as well: persuasive essays, discussions with your teacher, debates, negotiations, and in nearly every workplace imaginable.
As mentioned earlier, many animals use play to learn social skills and build social bonds. Humans, of course, do this too. Games played with other people can dramatically improve social skills, and playing together is one of the primary ways we form friendships.
Games provide a fun environment to practice communication, cooperation, and the presentation of self. When we learn to play games, we must also learn to win and lose gracefully. When we play on teams, we must learn to treat our teammates well, even when they make mistakes. Many games require attentive listening and speaking carefully chosen words (or not speaking certain words, as in Taboo).
Some games teach nonverbal communication, such as card games where we have partners who need to “read” us, and where we want our competition to misread us. Many games require us to notice the subtle cues – facial expressions and body language – that reveal the intentions of other players. Because our opponents are doing this as well, we mustn’t get too excited when we draw a good card.
In all these ways, games help cultivate emotional maturity and social intelligence.7
One lovely example of this is a summer camp offered through Blue Highway Games in Queen Anne called “Ubuntu” in which kids meet in a park for structured, outdoor games. Their motto is “Connecting people through play.”
Risk and Resilience
Games can teach us to learn from mistakes and deal with failures. When we learn a new game, we have to experiment to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. Games often require us to guess what to do with limited information. Wizard and 7 Wonders Duel are good examples of this. If we want to keep playing, we have to take risks.
Many people, adults included, struggle with risk-taking. We’re afraid to make mistakes, afraid to fail, and afraid of how others will judge us if we mess up. Games provide a safe environment for risk-taking. Usually, the worst possible consequence of making a mistake is losing the game, once. We can always start over and try again. In this way, games can be a tool for overcoming crippling perfectionism.
According to play expert Stuart Brown, when we deprive rats of play during their development, they don’t develop the ability to recover from fearful experiences and take necessary risks. One experiment that showed this had two groups of nearly identical rats and separated them from birth into a group that was allowed to play and group that was deprived of play. When these rats were later presented with an object that smelled like a cat, they all ran away in terror, found a hiding place, and cowered there. Eventually, the rats who had been allowed to play as children came out of hiding and cautiously explored their environment. But the play-deprived rats never came out. They stayed in their hiding places until they died.8
This is a pretty extreme demonstration of the relationship between play and risk-taking. When animals play, they take some risks. They might mess up while playing, hurt a companion a little or get hurt a little themselves, but the stakes are generally low, and something is learned from each mistake.8
In human play, confidence is built steadily, through trial-and-error. A sense that we can recover from setbacks arises. With that in our psychological arsenal, we’re much more prepared for adulthood.
Games are good at convincing your brain to care, so they make content easier to learn. That, plus the fact that play is intrinsically motivating, has led some people to push for the “gamification” of learning, which means turning school lessons and homework into something akin to video games.12
There are certainly some situations where this is appropriate and effective, but we shouldn’t see it as a panacea. Most schoolwork does not readily lend itself to gamification, and even if it did, we’d be unwise to do so. I doubt we’ll ever gamify the workplace. Students still need to learn how to do boring work.
The Right Kind of Play
Not all games are created equal. Some games do not provide much benefit at all, while others have powerful benefits. Look for games that provide steadily increasing challenges. Look for games that consistently put you in new situations and demand new solutions. Look for games that make you think. These definitively do not have to be so-called “brain games.”
All games require us to learn how to play them, and the act of learning makes us smarter. If, beyond that, the game is easy and repetitive, then it’s not helping. The lesson here is clear: play a variety of games; constantly learn new games; play games that challenge you; seek out competitors who are slightly better than you; and, once you’ve mastered a game, move on because you’re not getting much benefit from it anymore.
The best kinds of play are what we find at the intersection of fun and challenging.
Despite their bad reputation, video games can even be beneficial, so long as they fit the above criteria. Many video games are repetitive and mind-numbing; these provide no benefit. But many other video games are challenging, dynamic games that demand creativity, constant learning, quick-thinking, and clever strategy.12
And there are documented benefits:
For instance, an important 2003 study in the journal Nature found an array of benefits to playing video games. On tests of visual perception, game players scored 30 percent higher than nonplayers. Playing video games enhanced individuals’ ability to detect changes in the environment and their capacity to process information simultaneously. Even doctors can benefit … One study found that physicians who spent at least three hours a week playing video games made about 37 percent fewer mistakes in laparoscopic surgery and performed the task 27 percent faster than did their counterparts who did not play.6
Cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier studies action video games at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. She and her colleagues have found that, in players of action video games, “key ‘focusing’ areas of the brain become much more efficient. Action gamers can also switch their attention quickly with only a small mental cost.”13 They even discovered that, because video game environments are so complex, gamers become “better at suppressing irrelevant information,” a critical skill in the information-rich modern world.13 Acknowledging that “bingeing isn’t healthy,” Bavelier’s research shows that it doesn’t take very much gaming to get the positive effects – just 30 minutes per day for a few months is enough to produce a long-lasting benefit.13
Too Much of a Good Thing
I mentioned earlier that I’ve had difficulties with video-game addiction. At times, I played Halo and Warcraft so much that my schoolwork and social life suffered. Play may be good for you, but only in moderation. Play should be a part of your life, not your entire life.
Video game addiction is a very real and serious problem. Several people have died from too much continuous gaming,14 but excessive gaming becomes problematic long before it threatens your life. Parents should be concerned when their children seem to care more about their games than about what’s going on in the real world. The most addictive games appear to be massive-multiplayer-online-role-playing-games,15 such as World of Warcraft, but just about any game can be addictive. It has become so prevalent that there are now a variety of rehab programs for those struggling to overcome video game addiction.16
I generally favor physical games, such as board games and card games over video games because they tend to be less addictive. They usually require someone else to physically be there, so you can’t just play by yourself for hours on end. And they tend to be less flashy and more limited, so the tendency to get addicted is reduced.
But it’s not gone. I’ve spent over 1000 hours playing online chess – a decidedly unflashy game. In 4th grade I was addicted to Monopoly, which is pretty boring by modern standards. A decade later, I was hooked on a board game called Blokus, and I had several friends who were similarly addicted and had enough free time to play with me for hours on end. Many people today – adults included – are addicted to Magic: The Gathering.
When the focus on play trumps schoolwork, health, and family, it has gone too far. So as good as play is, you can have too much of a good thing.
Modeling a Healthy Relationship to Play
One thing every parent can do to help their children develop a healthy relationship to play is leading by example.
Play, by the way, isn’t just about kids playing with kids or kids playing with parents; it’s also about parents playing with parents. Games are for parents (and grandparents) too.
I have a distinct childhood memory of struggling to fall asleep because of the raucous laughter coming from down the hall. My parents, along with some of my aunts and uncles, were playing Balderdash. My parents still regularly play games with their neighbors, friends, and siblings. And when I come home to visit, they eagerly suggest that we play Rummikub, Bananagrams, or Ticket To Ride. But my parents also work very hard, do their chores, exercise, and read.
Play is just a healthy part of their balanced lifestyle.
Be sure to check out our list of recommended games, sorted by type!
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Dugatkin, Lee Alan and Rodrigues, Sarina. “Games Animals Play.” Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. UC Berkeley. March 1, 2008.
2 Restak, Richard and Kim, Scott. The Playful Brain: The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind. Riverhead Trade, 2011. Pg. 12-13.
3 Wagner, Tony. Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. Scribner, 2012.
4 Izquierdo, Isabel Behncke “Evolution’s Gift of Play from Bonobo Apes to Humans.” TED2011.
5 MacDonald, Matthew. Your Brain: The Missing Manual. O’Reilly Media, 2008.
6 Pink, Daniel H. A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Riverhead Trade, 2006. Pg. 192-211.
7 Keil, Steve. “A Manifesto for Play for Bulgaria and Beyond.” TEDxBG, 2011.
8 Brown, Stuart. “Play is more than just fun.” TED Serious Play 2008.
9 Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business, 2010.
10 Gopnik, Alison. “In Defense of Play: The ‘elaborate detour’ of having fun pays cognitive dividends.” The Atlantic. August 12, 2016.
11 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Creativity: The Psychology of Discovery and Invention. Harper Perennial, 1997.
12 Zichermann, Gabe. “How Games Make Kids Smarter.” TEDxKids@Brussels, 2011.
13 Oakley, Barbara, PhD. Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential. TarcherPerigee, 2017. Pg. 145-147.
14 “Gaming to Death: 6 Woeful Tales of People Who Died Playing Video Games.” ShezCrafti. February 11, 2012.
15 Van Rooij, Antonius J., et al. “Video game addiction and social responsibility.” Addiction Research and Theory. Volume 18. 26 Aug 2010. Pg. 489-493.
16 Rehabs.com. “Choosing the Best Video Game Addiction Rehab Program.”
Einstein: Sasse, Arthur. Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8970653.