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New Study from Professor Jan Plass Explores Positive Impact of Video Games on Children


New research finds that digital games can contribute to the well-being of children, but game producers must design games to support positive outcomes.

Video games can contribute to and support the well-being of children if they are designed with the needs of children in mind, according to new research from UNICEF Innocenti and collaborating institutions, including New York University.

The report, the second in the Responsible Innovation in Technology for Children (RITEC) project, establishes that digital gaming companies and game designers can and should support the well-being of children through the games they produce and demonstrates that digital play has a particularly positive impact on children’s autonomy, competence, creativity, and identity when it responds to their deep interests, needs, and desires. The project was co-founded by UNICEF and the LEGO Group and is funded by the LEGO Foundation.

Jan L. Plass, who is a professor and the Paulette Goddard Chair in Digital Media and Learning Sciences as well as the acting program co-director of the Educational Communication and Technology program, led one of three studies appearing in the report. To understand the effect of digital play on children’s well-being, Plass and his colleagues implemented a 10-week intervention involving digital games including Lego Builder’s Journey and Rocket League with 255 children ages 8 through 12 years old. Among their findings, US children with a greater need for belonging relayed more positive feelings toward their social and parental relationships and an improved sense of autonomy. In Chile, children reported greater autonomy and improved parental relationships. In South Africa, the digital play generally supported well-being for all children.

“Many parents are concerned about screen time for their children, and this is the first study investigating the effect of digital play on well-being for this age group in the US, Chile, and South Africa,” said Plass, founding director of the Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technology in Education (CREATE) Lab at NYU Steinhardt.

In addition to the experimental research led by Plass, observational research was conducted in the homes of 50 families over a 14-month period with children ages 6 through 12 in Australia, Cyprus, South Africa, and the UK. Lab-based research measured heart rate, eye tracking, facial expressions, and galvanic skin response (changes in sweat gland activity) of 69 children, ages 7 though 12, playing digital games in Australia.

Portrait of Professor Jan Plass in his office

The finding that digital play can enhance child well-being and meet children’s psychological needs, such as the need for connections to others, is especially important at a time when we are concerned about children’s mental health.

Jan L. Plass, Founding Director of the CREATE Lab at NYU Steinhardt

The three studies found that games can support children’s senses of autonomy, competence, creativity, and identity, as well as help them regulate emotions and build relationships. But in order to support one or more of these aspects of well-being, games should consider certain features. For example, to support children’s sense of autonomy, a game could put them in control, allow them to make decisions about gameplay and encourage them to develop their own strategies to progress. Or to support creativity, a game could allow children to freely explore and solve problems or create their own characters or narratives.

“For decades, people have often assumed that playing video games is somehow bad for children, undermining their well-being. But our new study paints a far more complex picture – one in which these games can actually contribute to children’s well-being and positively support them as they grow up,” said Bo Viktor Nylund, director of UNICEF Innocenti.

Anna Rafferty, vice president of Digital Consumer Engagement, the LEGO Group, said: “This exciting research from UNICEF and leading academics shows that safe and inclusive digital play can have a profoundly positive impact on children’s lives. We’re proud to be partnering with like-minded organisations to understand how digital experiences can be designed in a way that puts children’s well-being first. These findings will empower responsible businesses to create a digital future where children are safe, nurtured and equipped to thrive.”

“The finding that digital play can enhance child well-being and meet children’s psychological needs, such as the need for connections to others, is especially important at a time when we are concerned about children’s mental health,” added Plass.

Said Nylund, “This research helps us understand not only how video games can impact the well-being of children, but also helps the producers and designers of these games understand what elements they can include to support children. We hope they will consider these findings as they design the games our children will be playing in the future.”

Also included in the RITEC project is the Joan Ganz Cooney Center; the Young & Resilient Research Centre at Western Sydney University; the Graduate Center, City University of New York; the University of Sheffield; and the Australian Centre of Excellence for the Digital Child.

The findings will be followed later this year by the launch of a guide to assist businesses to incorporate these findings into the games they design.

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Educational Communication and Technology

Prepare to create, use, and evaluate media and technology through academic and leadership positions in research, technology, and education.

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The Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technologies in Education (CREATE)

The Consortium for Research and Evaluation of Advanced Technologies in Education (CREATE) engages in research on the design, critique, and evaluation of wide-ranging advanced digital technologies for learning. Projects housed in the consortium involve interdisciplinary teams of scholars and developers who bridge basic and applied research, development, and evaluation.

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