Video games get a bad rap. They are often portrayed as violent, addictive, and a mindless waste of hours that encourage obesity.
But that’s only part of the story.
Computer gaming is a $20 billion industry. In 2012, 58% of Americans played video games, according to the Entertainment Software Association.
Most virtual games can be designed to have educational and physical benefits for players. Games that use repetitive actions, such as the swinging of a bat or targeting a moving object, train the brain and muscles to perform better in real-life activities.
Video game brain training has the same effect as reading a book or riding a bike — when the brain is learning, thousands of new connections are being formed.
The addition of a reward system motivates players to continuously improve their skills.
In a study published in the journal Nature researchers 'discovered that swerving around cars while simultaneously picking out road signs in a video game can improve the short-term memory and long-term focus of older adults,' The New York Times reports.
A group of adults between the ages of 60 and 85 were were recruited to play a game called NeuroRacer for 12 hours over a month. Six months after playing the game, the older adults were better at multitasking, retained more information in a short period of time, and had stronger attention skills.
Fast-paced video games typically require quick thinking to avoid being killed. In real-life situations, active gamers have a better sense of what is going around them and are able to make decisions faster, according to scientists from the University of Rochester.
In the one study, participants aged 18 to 25 were split into two groups. One group played 50 hours of the action video games 'Call of Duty 2' and 'Unreal Tournament,' and the other group played 50 hours of the strategy game 'The Sims 2.' The action game players made decisions 25% faster in a task unrelated to playing video games, without sacrificing accuracy.
'Action game players make more correct decisions per unit time. If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference,' study researcher Daphne Bavelier said in a statement.
Playing video games on the Nintendo Wii improved skills needed for laparoscopic surgery, a procedure in which a thin tube with a camera is inserted into the abdomen to see organs on a screen, instead of cutting patients wide open.
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, found that doctors who spent one month playing either Wii Tennis, Wii Table Tennis, or a balloon warfare game called High Altitude Battle performed better in simulated tasks designed to test eye-hand coordination and movement precision.
The Nintendo Wii 'may be adopted in lower-budget institutions or at home by younger surgeons to optimise their training on simulators before performing real procedures,' the researchers concluded.
A small study in the journal Current Biology found that playing action video games helped children with dyslexia read faster and with better accuracy.
Twelve hours behind the controller 'improved children's reading speed, without any cost in accuracy, more so than one year of spontaneous reading development and more than or equal to highly demanding traditional reading treatments,' the researchers write.
By improving attention span, video games lead to better reading skills.
Researchers at the University of Washington are experimenting with virtual reality games as a way to distract burn victims from their pain.
'Being drawn into another world drains a lot of attentional resources, leaving less attention available to process pain signals,' according to the university's HITLab.
In a preliminary case study, two patients with severe burns played Nintendo games while their wounds were being treated. Both patients reported feeling significantly less pain while playing the game.
Video games are not just for entertainment. They can also 'help solve educational and scientific challenges,' according to Stanford physicist Ingmar H. Riedel-Kruse, who designed a collection of action games to teach people about biological processes.
The games involve a single-celled organism contained inside a square fluid chamber. The player interacts or 'controls' the living paramecia by applying electrical fields using a hand-held device that resembles a video game controller.
Since the reaction of the paramecia is real and not based on simulations, the games can teach players about micro-organismal behaviours, diffusion, and other biophysical concepts, the authors write in a study published in the journal Lab on a Chip.
They add: 'Students might be motivated to discuss and understand the observed phenomena in order to identify other winning strategies in such games.'
Slow-moving strategy games can change our thinking behaviour so that we can learn to make wiser, more ethical decisions in real-life scenarios.
That's the idea behind Quandary, a game that places human colonists on the Planet Braxos and requires the player, or captain, to help work out dilemmas among the settlers.
Writing for Boston.com, Scot Osterweil, creative director at MIT's Education Arcade explained: 'We don't believe that playing the game will automatically help players take better perspectives in their own lives, but we think the game represents a playful way of introducing ideas that can be further developed through reflective conversation with others, and through additional activities provided on the website.
Re-Mission is a third-person shooter game created by HopeLab to help young adults with cancer. In the game players control a nanobot named Roxxi who races through the human body fighting cancer with various weapons, such as the radiation gun. Players must also monitor patient health, learning about different forms of treatments and how they work along the way.
In a trial of 375 patients, researchers found game players took their antibiotics more consistently and were more likely to adhere to chemotherapy treatments than others. The players also knew more about cancer and had a stronger belief in their own ability to reach goals while undergoing cancer therapy.
A small study from Deakin University in Australia found that children ages three to six who played interactive games, like Wii, had better object motor skills than those who played non-interactive games. This includes skills like kicking, catching, throwing, and bouncing ball.
It's likely that electronic games improve hand-eye coordination, but researchers also note that children who already have better object motor skills could have been more drawn to interactive games in the first place.
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