Go ahead and pick up the controller — video games might not be as bad for you as you think. According to a new Australian research, video games offer a range of creative, social and emotional benefits for gamers — even those who play violent first-person shooters.

Dr Daniel Johnson, director of the Games Research and Interaction Design Lab at QUT, who will detail his findings to a Sydney University audience next Tuesday, told Crikey that academic research had only recently looked into the positive impacts of video games rather than their more controversial influences.

“We’ve found an abundance of clear evidence that video games do have a positive influence,” Johnson said. “Evidence suggests that they can increase your mood, boost your vitality, create a sense of competency and autonomy, and can increase your self-esteem and resilience.”

Johnson’s most recent study with the QUT lab interviewed 429 participants between the ages of 12 and 52 with an interest in recreational video games (31% were university students). The report found that video games’ impact on gamers’ well-being has little to do with what game they play or how often, rather who they play with and their level of immersion in the game.

According to the Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre’s “Videogames and Wellbeing: A Comprehensive Review”, which was produced by Johnson in his capacity as director of the centre’s gaming research group, video games can also contribute to emotional stability, reduce emotional disturbances in children, provide relaxation and reduce a gamer’s stress levels. This aligns with international studies that argue that gamers are better able to identify distractions, have quicker reaction times, improved vision, increased empathy and greater spatial orientation and cognitive flexibility. The list goes on.

While Johnson’s research notes that “excessive” gamers showed mild increases in anxiety or insomnia, it found that non-gamers had greater risks of problem behaviour. “There’s evidence that kids who don’t play video games are sometimes equally as bad off as those who play too much,” he told Crikey. “It can be quite isolating for kids who aren’t engaging in video games when all their friends are, but also they’re not getting the sense of emotion regulation that games offer.”

These results challenge stereotypes of video gamers as pimpled pubescents incapable of social interaction. Earlier this year, research conducted by Bond University for the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association found that nine in 10 Australian households own at least one video game device, with six in 10 homes having three or more gaming devices. The same study found that 76% of gamers are aged 18 and over, with 32 the average age of a gamer.

Wayne Warburton, a lecturer in developmental psychology at Macquarie University, told Crikey that video games had plenty of potential benefit. “The human brain wires up in response to everything we experience, real and virtual, and so video games, like any life experience, will change our brain’s wiring, but whether the changes are for better or worse (or not much of either) depends on a lot of things, including the game itself.”

What about violent video games? Media commentators have been quick to blame first-person shooter video games in the wake of gun-related massacres, with The UK’s Mail Online declaring the first-person shooter game Call of Duty the common link between Norwegian mass murderer Anders Brevik, Sandy Hook gunman Adam Lanza and Toulouse shooter Mohammed Merah.

Today, M15+ rated violent games are common among young people, with 44% of boys and 20% of girls between 12 and 14 playing one or more intensively violent game. But although Johnson’s research does find a correlation between violent games and some instances of aggressive behaviour, it is as notoriously difficult to establish causality for violence.

Warburton says if there is a link between video games and violent behaviour, it might be only temporary. “Violent media is neither necessary nor sufficient to cause violent behaviour,” he said. “Rather, the evidence suggests that watching violent media, including violent games, can increase the likelihood of being mildly aggressive for a short period afterwards, for most people.” He added that “the vast majority of active researchers in this area are convinced by the violent video game findings, but a small minority, most notably Christopher Ferguson, are not”.

Ferguson, who is the chairman of the psychology department at Stetson University in the United States, told Crikey violent games were actually beneficial. “There’s a pretty large group of studies suggesting that ‘violent’ (or perhaps better put as ‘action’) games promote visuo-spatial cognition — cognitive tasks related to things like engineering and surgery.

“My own research suggests that people who play more violent games are better able to handle stressful situations.  There is some research to suggest that playing action games in a social context is associated with increased civic and pro-social behaviours.”

According to DFC intelligence reports, the total market revenue for video games internationally is an estimated US$66 billion, having risen from $63 billion in 2012.