Video games that foster imaginative freedom can boost creativity under certain conditions, according to a study.
The study, published in the Creativity Research Journal, 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," said Douglas Gentile, a professor at Iowa State University in the US.
Gentile said Minecraft is like a virtual Lego world. The game allows players to explore unique worlds and create anything they can imagine.
Study participants randomly assigned to play Minecraft were split into two groups. The one receiving instruction was told 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, they were asked 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. Those instructed to be creative while playing Minecraft were the least creative.
Gentile said there is no clear explanation for this finding. The researchers outlined possible reasons why the instructed Minecraft group scored lower.
According to Jorge Blanco-Herrera, a former master's student at Iowa State University, 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 said.
"It's also possible they used all their 'creative juices' while playing and had nothing left when it came to complete the test," he said.
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.
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, researchers said.
Even first-person shooter games can potentially inspire creativity as players think about strategy and look for advantages in combat, they said.
"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 said.
The researchers said based on these findings, it is important to not disregard the potential video games have as engaging and adaptive educational opportunities.