Struggling to come up with original ideas? Playing the video game Minecraft may help. By comparing different kinds of entertainment — a TV show, a racing game, and Minecraft — researchers found those that played Minecraft were better at certain types of creativity immediately afterward.
While there are many concerns about video game use, this study shows a way that games can be beneficial.
Video games are a pervasive form of entertainment. A 2018 study found that 67% of Americans play video games, most often on smartphones and tablets. And in 2019, Limelight Networks found that the typical American gamer spends 7.6 hours per week playing, an almost 20% increase from 2018.
What effects video games have on young gamers has been the source of public and scientific debate since the 1980s. Playing games with violent content, for example, has been shown to increase aggressive thoughts and behaviors. However, no connection to actual violent acts has been found. Other research shows that video games can also teach desirable skills.
“It’s the same learning mechanism; [games] can have positive effects, too,” said Douglas Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University. Certain types of video games have been shown to improve hand-eye coordination, motion detection, and even some social skills, he said.
According to Gentile, what matters is the content and structure of a game, and each game can teach different things. In a new study, Gentile and his research team found that playing Minecraft can improve people’s ability to come up with new ideas.
In Minecraft, players explore a vast, randomly generated world, and can build almost anything out of Lego-like blocks. Players have used the freedom of the game to build complex structures, including re-creations of both fictional and real locations, and contraptions such as a functioning calculator. In many classrooms, teachers use the game to teach concepts such as mathematics, physics, and language skills. Microsoft, the game’s developer, has even produced an official set of resources for educators.
Participants in the study experienced 45 minutes of entertainment, consisting of playing Minecraft, playing a NASCAR racing game, or watching a nature documentary. Afterward, all participants were given tests that measured different kinds of creativity.
“What we found is that if they’ve played Minecraft ... they were more creative than either of the [other] conditions," said Gentile. In particular, the scientists saw greater creative production, which Gentile described as the ability to “think of something that hasn’t been thought of before.”
Gentile measured creative production through an established test known as the alien drawing task. Participants had to draw their impression of aliens that evolved on a world very different from Earth. “To the extent that they draw something similar to life on Earth, that’s not very creative,” said Gentile.
The study did not determine, however, exactly what aspect of playing Minecraft helped with creative production.
Chad Collins, a Bucks County father who co-founded Minefaire, the U.S.’s largest Minecraft-theme event, thinks the creativity boost might come from the engrossing nature of the game. “When you’re engaged in something like Minecraft, it’s really easy to lose track of time because you’re so immersed.... When you come out of that state, you feel invigorated," he said. Collins was not involved in the study.
Other researchers suggest that the actions players take within the game might determine what they learn. “How each person approached their experiences could be what really matters,” said Aroutis Foster, an associate professor of learning sciences and technologies at Drexel University, who was not involved in the study.
While Foster acknowledges that by design, Minecraft allows for more creative experiences, he believes that if someone chose to “drive creatively” within the racing game, they also could have improved their creative production.
"What you were doing in the game mattered,” agreed Craig Stark, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in this study. Stark’s own research showed how playing Minecraft improved people’s memory of their environment and spacial orientation. “The amount you explored ... that actually predicted how much your [spatial] memory improved,” he said.
While he emphasized that playing Minecraft and other games has clear benefits, Gentile advocated for moderation and informed choices. He said an excessive “amount of gaming is related to things like poorer school performance, more trouble with sleep, [and] more physical health problems.... That’s why parents need to be involved to help choose games that reinforce things they want their kids to learn.”