The study of the benefits of playing video games may be relatively new, but the positive function of play more generally has been an important field of study for a long time in developmental psychology. So, for example, Erik Erikson thought that play contexts allowed children to experiment with social situations and simulate alternative emotional consequences, which can make them feel better outside the play context. Similarly, Jean Piaget suggested that make-believe play provides children opportunities to reproduce real-life conflicts, to work out ideal resolutions to these conflicts and, as a result, dampen their negative feelings.
Play also constitutes an emotionally significant context through which themes of power and dominance, aggression, nurturance, anxiety, pain, loss, growth and pure fun can be enacted productively. As one example, a study of children’s play conversations showed how children use play for emotional mastery in their real lives. Whereas adolescents and adults often use self-disclosure and direct discussion with close friends to resolve emotional issues, children use play to work them out through pretend-based narratives enacted either alone or with others.
More recently, neuroscientific research with rats suggests specific brain mechanisms that help explain how play fighting in particular leads to the development of social competence. Several experimental laboratory studies (for a review of these studies and so much more, check out The Playful Brain) have shown that play fighting results in the release of chemical growth factors in the parts of the brain that are coordinated for highly social activities (e.g., the orbital frontal cortex; OFC), thus promoting the growth and development of these areas. Given how similar human and nonhuman animals are in terms of several forms of play, there may be a similar mechanism by which play experiences improve social competence in children. Evolutionary psychology has also long emphasized the adaptive functions of play (you can check out this chapter for a fabulous summary and critique of the research). In our research program, we think that the same emotional themes (e.g., dominance, nurturance, anxiety, growth) identified in children’s play experiences in general are also explored in video games, and important cognitive, emotional and social competencies may thereby be acquired through playing in these virtual contexts.
Check out this great TED talk on why play is absolutely vital to our well-being: TED: Why play is vital