The Straight Dope - Why video games are good for you

What is the influence of video games on the human mind?

— Brian

Why, they’re the greatest boon to intellectual development since the invention of movable type.

Not everybody thinks this. The common view from President Obama on down is that video games rot your mind, sap your strength, and probably give you acne and bad breath.

I don’t claim video games have been 100 percent beneficial. The Columbine massacre shooters were reportedly addicted to video games. News accounts tell of a kid killing his mother with a hammer when she took away his Sony PlayStation, and of another killing his mom and shooting his dad when they made him stop playing the violent game Halo 3. A woman murdered her baby because its crying disturbed her concentration on FarmVille, which is up there for most idiotic game on earth. A South Korean couple reportedly let their baby starve to death while they raised a virtual baby online, and an American mother did the same while obsessing over World of Warcraft. A Korean man (Korea is the Holy Land of video game fanatics) apparently died of exhaustion after a 50-hour Starcraft binge, and a guy in Wisconsin fatally shot himself while playing Everquest.

These things are unfortunate. However, let’s not forget that Jared Loughner, accused of shooting U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords and 18 others, said on his MySpace page that his favorite interest was reading and that he studied grammar. This isn’t surprising. If you’ve ever dealt with hardcore grammarians, you know these people are prepared to kill.

My point is if you’re going to make judgments about something just because it attracts kooks and losers, you’d have to ban the Republican primaries. Video games, in contrast, have many positive aspects. For example:

• They can boost brain function. When older adults were trained to play Rise of Nations, a strategy game, they showed significant improvement in switching between tasks, reaction time, and memory. College students who played both violent and nonviolent video games also showed increased cognitive function. Research indicates video gamers are better at counting items quickly, ignoring distractions, and taking in more information at a glance. The stacking game Tetris has been shown to improve spatial coordination.

• Video games requiring physical interaction, such as the Nintendo Wii, Xbox Kinect, and PlayStation Move, can help you get in shape. A Mayo Clinic study found children playing Wii Sports Boxing burned an 189 additional calories per hour. Do that for 40 minutes every day and other things being equal you’d lose a pound a month.

• Video games can help you train for serious tasks requiring video technology. In a study of medical students who spent up to five hours a week playing either a shooter game or a chess simulator, the shooters proved to be much more adept at learning to use a virtual-reality training simulator for endoscopic surgery. (The next step would have been having the students perform actual endoscopic surgery, which is also done with video technology, but the researchers prudently stopped short of this ultimate test.) Another study found that if you’re good at the Wii, you’ll be good at simulated laparoscopic surgery, too.

• Video games can be an effective teaching tool. A game designed for kids with diabetes reduced ER visits, and one for kids with cancer got them to take their medicine.

Video games have other benefits, too:

• Video shooter games are a good way of recruiting real shooters. America’s Army, developed by America’s real army, is the most popular war game ever, with 43 million downloads as of 2009, and is credited with being the military’s most effective recruiting tool. Whether it’s smart to fill the ranks with trigger-happy 94m3r$ I leave to the reader to decide.

• Violent video games may reduce rather than increase crime, some academics contend, because causing make-believe mayhem leaves participants with less time for the real thing.

• The demands of video gamers for ever faster and more realistic action have significantly pushed the envelope of digital technology, to the point where off-the-shelf toys now rival professional computer equipment that once cost millions. For example, in 2010 the Air Force Research Laboratory unveiled a high-speed, low-cost networked supercomputer it had built by linking together 1,760 PlayStation 3 consoles. Recently the Army announced it’ll use a video game engine to power a portable virtual-reality training program, the Dismounted Soldier Training System.

• Finally, video games are a potent force in the economy, accounting for $16 billion in software sales and $9 billion in hardware in 2010 in the U.S., and $65 billion worldwide. Sixty-five percent of U.S. households play video games.

Am I putting a positive spin on things? Of course. You can find evidence to show, and there’s no lack of people who think, that video games are evil and will lead to the collapse of civilization. However, the same is or was thought to be true of television, popular music, text messaging, gum chewing, cars, and books.

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