A little known fact about me: I hold the high score on 5 Tetris arcade machines.

“Why would Colin waste his time with games, when the game of life is the only one worth playing?” you’re likely asking yourself at this moment. “And aren’t video games for geeks and Wii-bowlers?” Two very good questions. The answer to the latter question is a resounding ‘No.’ The answer to the first question is a bit more involved. Let me lead into it with some interesting facts about Tetris.

Tetris is one of those rare creatures that refuses to stay sequestered within its primary niche. Sure, it’s a video game – a very popular game (the only one that has been translated onto almost every video game system, graphing calculators, and the sides of buildings all over the world) – but it has many properties help it distinguish itself from the rank-and-file Mario flicks of the world.

First, Tetris has been shown to increase brain efficiency in players. The more you play, the more efficient your brain becomes, using less and less glucose to perform the same calculations.

Second, Tetris can help ease the pain of a difficult day at work or a particularly traumatic event. Though the study that was conducted didn’t indicate exactly why this is the case, it’s thought that the stimulating (though repetitive) visuals and calculating game play keep a lot of the stressful flash-back-worthy snippets from sticking around in your long term memory.

Third, Tetris increases hand-eye-coordination. Many (if not most) video games are said to do this to a certain extent, but because of the nature of Tetris’ game play, it tends to be even more effective.

Not bad for a game created in 1984 (speaking of which, happy 25th birthday, Tetris)!

I’ve always enjoyed Tetris for the game play, but I have definitely noticed the other benefits from playing it (I get a kick out of activities that are fun and productive at the same time).

All that in mind, Tetris is not the only practical game you could be playing. Here are a few other examples:


The whole Civilization series is fantastic, though number 4 took things to a whole new level. This so-called ‘god game’ puts you in controls of a tribe that slowly evolves into a space-faring civilization. You decide where to build settlements, what technologies to research, what religion (if any) your people will adhere to, how to deal with money, governmental structure, how to interact with your neighbors, etc etc etc. I can’t think of any game that is as complex as Civ 4, and each round is a lot different than the last (there are always new strategies to try out and different ways to win the game). The skills that get the most exercise when I play Civ are my resource management chops. Learning to micromanage and accumulate wealth and knowledge in a game (and having the opportunity to fail over and over with no real-world consequences) is VERY helpful when you try to do the same in your everyday life.


This isn’t strictly a video game, and in fact I usually learn more when I play the tangible, board game version of it. The idea behind Risk is that every player has a smattering of armies that they place on a board (usually an image of Earth, with national borders present) and use to make a play at global domination. Because combat is calculated by a handful of dice, it’s easy to have your fortune change quite suddenly, which is part of why the game is so much fun. The real value of Risk, though, is that you can hone your interpersonal skills throughout the entire match. Alliances are made and broken, and it’s not unusual for feelings to be hurt and girlfriends to storm off, swearing they’ll never play a board game again (VERY possible). If you play frequently enough, however, you’ll be able to quickly find the right balance between competition, encouragement, sportsmanship, and commiseration in any situation.

Final Fantasy

If you’ve ever played a game from the Final Fantasy series (I haven’t been keeping up, but I’m pretty sure there are over a dozen of them now), you know that it’s a fairly standard role-playing game (RPG). The basic game play in the FF series isn’t very complicated: you move your character around a fantastic world and every so often you are drawn into a battle with bad guys of different flavors. The really addictive (and learny) component of this game series is that as you fight more monsters and complete more objectives you gain levels which in turn give you attribute points to distribute, additional spells to cast, or special attacks to perform. Your characters grow as people as they work harder and smarter. This is an excellent metaphor for the real world, and in fact I find myself looking at my own education and work history in the same way sometimes. This makes it easier to see what I can do more of to get the skills and attributes I want more of (full disclosure: I may have played a lot of RPGs as a kid…you won’t necessarily geek out the same way).

The bottom line is this: if you are looking to improve yourself in any way, it’s likely there are video games out there that might help you achieve your goals. They will do so subtly, and you will have to put effort into them like you would anything else, but in most cases they will be a welcome break from the other, less Nintendo-ish components of your personal development routine.

Don’t agree? Totally agree, but think I left some important games off my list? Let me know by leaving a comment!

Update: April 23, 2016

I don’t play video games very often anymore, aside from a few casual games on my phone, but I do still have Civilization (five, these days) on my computer, and an off-brand Tetris game to play while listening to podcasts or whatnot.

It’s a stellar way to occupy your hands while you mentally process or zone out.

Also, I’m willing to bet gaming will have even higher-impact benefits as the augmented/virtual reality movement goes mainstream.