Monday, July 13, 2009

Mental Video Games and Video Games Myths

Why Video Games are Good For You

Andrew Marks

I'm certain that many of you here today are familiar with the horror stories associated with video games, such as a Chinese man stabbing another fellow gamer for selling a borrowed weapon in-game, or the boy who shot his parents over Halo 3, or the Korean who died after a 50 hour gaming session. Video game related deaths have become a hot topic over the last few years. In fact, people get so focused on these events (Which really only become newsworthy when Video Games are involved) that they don't look into the other side of video games. No-one knows that video games help people physically and mentally. No-one really cares that all the myths about video games simply aren't true. No-one takes the time to see how the games industry is evolving to help us. And no-one looks at how video games can even have medicinal benefits. My topic is Video Games and why they are good for you.

New studies show that children who play video games have finer-tuned bodies than those who don't. According to new research, people who play video games can track moving objects 30% more than non-players. Another test shows that avid game players can detect very subtle changes in color against a gray background that most people cannot. Many people think that violent video games are very destructive and harmful, but as it turns out, violent video games bestow significantly more visual benefits than non-violent games. Daphne Bavelier and Shawn Green came across this phenomena while they were researching the visual skills of deaf people. They discovered that Shawn had significantly higher visual skills than his parter, Daphne. Shawn was an avid gamer and Daphne was not. They followed up on this research and they tested game aficionados with several visual tests. The tests were described as being "totally unlike gaming" and required the subjects to do the same specialized task over and over. They tested the gamers and a group of non-gamers on these tests, and sure enough, the gamers outperformed the non-players significantly. To make sure that video game players weren't just visually talented people, they conducted another test. Two groups of non-gamers were given the WWII game Medal of Honor, in which the player plays as a soldier in WWII. Another group was given Tetris to play. After 3 weeks of an hour a day practice, the people who were given Medal of Honor performed astronomically higher on visual tests than the group that played Tetris. These scores were not as high as the people who played video games avidly, and current research does not show how long it takes to develop these skills. You may be wondering why visual skills are so important. Think about it this way: Someone who has more developed visual skills is likely going to be a better driver. Wouldn't all of you want your children to be able to identify dangers on the road when they start driving at 16? Video games are also a lot more beneficial to your body than simply watching TV. After testing 18 children during a 25 minute gaming session, the University of Hong Kong report found that compared with resting, kids burned 39 percent more calories during a seated game, 98 percent more during an 'active bowling game' and a whopping 451 percent more during an 'action/running game'. Video games are beneficial to growing children. Games can help develop significant visual and physical capabilities, and right now, we have a generation of gamers who are going to grow up with these skills.

Video Games have many positive effects on the way children think, and they present learning opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable. Children who play video games have shown to perform significantly higher on tests of fluid intelligence, and studies show that video games make people more perceptive by training their brains to analyze things faster. Steven Johnson, the author of the bestselling book "Everything Bad is Good for You", says when kids are playing video games, they're learning how to think in ways that would be extremely useful to them when they go out into the world and do the same kind of thinking in an office. He says:
 "Failure is credited as being the most successful teacher, but in today's culture failure is simply not tolerated, and if we can't fail how can we learn? Video games teach children with failure, but don't reprimand them for it.  Video games encourage children to try again. One of the most popular games of all time is without a doubt Pokémon, but what will all the children who grew up with Pokémon actually be taught? If you analyze what is required to win a Pokémon game you spot things that are extremely important in today's culture. The Pokémon generation is going to think well about systems, good at exploring, good at re-conceptualizing their goals based on their experience, they're not going to judge someone's intelligence just by how fast and efficient they are, and they're going to think non-laterally." He says "In the world of today with it's complex systems and danger, those are pretty damn good ways to think." 

Steven Johnson also recollects an incident when he was showing his 7-year-old nephew SimCity. As most of you probably know, SimCity is an urban simulator that lets you create a virtual metropolis on your computer, build highways and bridges, zone areas for development, and raise or lower taxes. Based on the player’s decisions, neighborhoods thrive or decline, streets get overrun with traffic or remain wastelands, and criminals prosper or disappear. When he walked his nephew through the game, he gave him only the most cursory overview of the rules; he was mostly just giving him a tour of the city he’d built. But the 7-year-old was absorbing the rules nonetheless. At one point, Steven showed him a block of rusted, crime-ridden factories that lay abandoned and explained that he'd had difficulty getting this part of his city to come back to life. His nephew turned to him and said, “I think you need to lower your industrial tax rates.” He said it as calmly and as confidently as if he were saying, “I think we need to shoot the bad guy.” "In a 20-minute tour of SimCity," he said "my nephew had learned a fundamental principle of urban economics: Some areas zoned for specific uses can falter if the zone-specific taxes are too high." Of course, if Johnson had sat his 7-year-old nephew down in an urban studies classroom, he would be asleep in 10 seconds. The 7-year-old was learning in spite of himself. So, as it turns out, video games aren't rotting children's brains, in fact, they are allowing children to become smarter and smarter. Video games present environments that the player wouldn't be exposed to otherwise. In these situations they develop thinking strategies that they would have never had developed without Video Games.

There are many myths surrounding video games that are simply not true. Many people claim that violent crime is influenced by violent video games. According to federal crime statistics, the rate of juvenile violent crime in the US is at a 30-year low. Researchers find that people serving time for violent crimes typically consume less media before committing their crimes than the average person in the general population, and while it is true that recently most students involved in school shootings did play video games, an overwhelming majority of children play video games (90% of boys 40% of girls), so being a game-player doesn't mean much.  According to a 2001 U.S. Surgeon General's report, the strongest risk factors for school shootings are centered on mental stability and the quality of home life, not media exposure. The panic over video games does more harm than good. It has led adult authorities to be more suspicious and hostile to many kids who already feel cut off from the system just because they play video games. It also misdirects energy away from eliminating the actual causes of youth violence and allows problems to continue to fester. People also claim that video games cause youth aggression. 
All the research that has been done in this area is inconclusive, and has also been criticized on methodological grounds. According to Henry Jenkins, an MIT professor in Comparative Media Studies, "In these studies, media images are removed from any narrative context. Subjects are asked to engage with content that they would not normally consume and may not understand. Finally, the laboratory context is radically different from the environments where games would normally be played. Most studies found a correlation, not a causal relationship, which means the research could simply show that aggressive people like aggressive entertainment."
Former military psychologist and moral reformer David Grossman argues that because the military uses games in training (including, he claims, training soldiers to shoot and kill), the generation of young people who play such games are similarly being brutalized and conditioned to be aggressive in their everyday social interactions. Jenkins says that this model only works if "We remove training and education from a meaningful cultural context, we assume learners have no conscious goals and that they show no resistance to what they are being taught, we assume that they unwittingly apply what they learn in a fantasy environment to real world spaces." The military uses games as part of a specific curriculum, with clearly defined goals, in a context where students actively want to learn and have a need for the information being transmitted. There are consequences for not mastering those skills. 
James Gee describes game players as "active problem solvers who do not see mistakes as errors, but as opportunities for improvement. Players search for newer, better solutions to problems and challenges", he says. "And they are encouraged to constantly form and test hypotheses. This research points to a fundamentally different model of how and what players learn from games." Classic studies of play behavior among primates suggest that apes make basic distinctions between play fighting and actual combat.  
Game designer and play theorist Eric Zimmerman describes the ways we understand play as distinctive from reality as entering the "magic circle." The kid who is punching a toy designed for this purpose is still within the "magic circle" of play and understands her actions on those terms. Such research shows us only that violent play leads to more violent play. So as it turns out, playing violent video games is not going to make children more violent. The many myths about video games have no evidence to back them up. In fact, all the evidence directly counters the myths.

With recent developments in gaming technology and research, more and more thought is going into making games more and more useful. In fact, you could say that the games industry is evolving to meet our needs, and this is something that the movie and TV industry can never do. More and more research is being conducted by the video game companies. Actually, last year Nintendo spent 140 Million dollars on research and development. That's more than twice then what the federal government spent on research and innovation in Education. There are many games on the market that are being specifically designed for mental and physical improvement. One of the first achievements in this field was the game "Brain Age". Brain Age was developed by a neurologist, who used brain scans to measure mental activity. He found that reading aloud and doing simple math problems in quick succession stimulates the brain and promotes healthy development. He designed "Brain Age" with this research in mind. This kind of game would have been impossible fifteen years ago because the game industry didn't do much research into their games. After "Brain Age" became extremely popular, the games industry began making more and more mentally stimulating games. Eventually a sequel to Brain Age came out with even more research behind it than its predecessor. The games industry is getting better and better at making games that are beneficial to the players. Possibly the most amazing breakthrough in the last 5 years of gaming would have to be the Nintendo Wii. With the invention of this device, games suddenly became a lot more interactive and physically helpful. The Wii Fit is an excellent example of how new technologies can make the video game industry more and more adept at making what society needs.
With the development of the Wii, other companies are following suit. With the development of Project Natal players can simply stand in front of their television, without a controller, and play. Natal recognizes faces, complicated movements, voices, and objects. Natal creates a full body and mind experience by immersing the player into the game. With the development of new technologies, the Game industry can only get more and more sophisticated. The game industry is evolving to create an even more beneficial experience.

As I have explained, games can have mental and physical bonuses, but could they actually treat the mental condition ADD? The answer is yes. Alan Pope, Ph.D. and Olafur Pallson, Psy.D. have invented a way for Nintendo and Play Station games to be used to treat Attention Deficit Disorder. In traditional treatment, the patient is wired up to a machine that reads his or her brainwaves. The patent has to make a colored bar that shows his high functioning brain waves go higher, and make a bar representing his low functioning brainwaves go lower. Today, some existing software allows patients to play simple video games which reinforce the faster brain waves. Pope and Pallson's unique contribution is that they have invented a device that works with off the shelf video games. When players produce faster brain waves - beta waves - the game pad or joy stick for the video game works better, and they can better control the characters on the screen. When players use slower, more lethargic brain waves - theta waves - the game pad is more sluggish. This means that ADD sufferers can learn to control their behavior without the need for medication or extensive therapy. In early research about 20 youngsters ages 9 to 14 received EEG biofeedback - half using the new invention, and half using traditional biofeedback. Both groups are said to have made improvements in controlling their impulses and improving their concentration. Pope and Pallson reported that the youngsters using video games showed improvements sooner. They were also more likely to come in for their sessions. This technology could be in homes all over the country within the next two or three years. Drs. Pope and Palsson even foresee a time when video game makers who produce games merely for entertainment might have a hard time competing with companies making games that have healthy mental or physical side benefits. Video games are being used for medicinal purposes, and they have been proven to work.

Video games are good for you. They help children develop physically and mentally, and all the myths about video games simply don't stand up when they are examined closely. The video game industry is continually improving to help and educate us, and make us a more intelligent species overall. Video games can even be used to help children with the mental condition ADD. Video games are good for you. It's proven, and it's true. So the next time you pick up a controller, think to yourself about what you learned today.

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