Video games that foster creative freedom can increase creativity under certain conditions, according to new research.

The experimental study compared the effect of playing Minecraft, with or without instruction, to watching a TV show or playing a race car video game. Those given the freedom to play Minecraft without instruction were most creative.

“It’s not just that Minecraft can help induce creativity. There seems to be something about choosing to do it that also matters,” says Douglas Gentile, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University.

If you are not familiar with the game, Gentile says Minecraft is like a virtual Lego world. The game, which has sold more than 100 million copies, allows players to explore unique worlds and create anything they can imagine. Researchers split study participants randomly assigned to play Minecraft into two groups. They told the one receiving instruction to play as creatively as possible.

After 40 minutes of play or watching TV, the 352 participants completed several creativity tasks. To measure creative production, researchers asked participants to draw a creature from a world much different than Earth. More human-like creatures scored low for creativity and those less human-like scored high. Surprisingly, those instructed to be creative while playing Minecraft were the least creative.

Gentile says there’s no clear explanation for this finding. In the paper in Creativity Research Journal, the authors outline possible reasons why the instructed Minecraft group scored lower. Lead author Jorge Blanco-Herrera, a former master’s student in psychology, says the instructions may have changed subjects’ motivation for play.

“Being told to be creative may have actually limited their options while playing, resulting in a less creative experience,” Blanco-Herrera says. “It’s also possible they used all their ‘creative juices’ while playing and had nothing left when it came time to complete the test.”

Video games can have both harmful and beneficial effects. Gentile’s previous research has shown the amount, content, and context of video games influence what players learn through repeated experiences. While much of Gentile’s research has focused on aggression or prosocial behavior, he says the same appears to be true for creativity.

Most video games encourage players to practice some level of creativity. For example, players may create a character and story for role-playing games or be rewarded for creative strategies in competitive games. The researchers say even first-person shooter games can potentially inspire creativity as players think about strategy and look for advantages in combat.

“The research is starting to tell a more interesting, nuanced picture. Our results are similar to other gaming research in that you get better at what you practice, but how you practice might matter just as much,” Gentile says.

The researchers say based on these findings, it is important to not disregard the potential video games have as engaging and adaptive educational opportunities.

Source: Iowa State University

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