Vol. 152 August 1, 2016 It’s Not the Screen Time, It’s the Content.

Hub thumbnail 2015

“Playing rapid action video games benefits the mental skills of processing information, switching between tasks, and visualizing the rotation of an object.”
                 Scientific American, July 2016


What?!
“Shooting zombies and repelling aliens can lead to lasting improvement in some mental skills.” (1)

Bavelier while a graduate student in the 1990s developed a computerized psychological test of the ability to see an individual shape in a busy visual scene. He tested it first on himself, expected to get an “average score”,  and  got a perfect score. He next tested Green, his mentor who also unexpectedly got a perfect score. They figured something was wrong with the computer program, but they could not identify a bug. After a number of Green’s non-psychological buddies also scored perfect results they spent some time in looking for the reason. The only common denominator among the group was that each had spent more than 10 hours a week playing the video game Team Fortress Classic. That discovery launched them, and others, into 15 years of investigations into the cognitive effects of playing fast-paced “shooter” video games.

According to various studies video game playing can boost a variety of cognitive skills:

  • improve focus on visual details (like reading fine print in a contract or on a prescription bottle)
  • heighten awareness of visual contrast (help drive in a thick fog)
  • enhance mental rotation of objects (get that odd-shaped couch through the door)
  • improve audio and visual multitasking (read a menu while conversing with a dinner partner)
  • improve reaction time to unexpected events by 10%
  • increase the number of correct decisions made under pressure
  • improve specific attention in fast changing visual fields (better control of attention)

One study found that laparoscopic surgeons who were also game players could complete surgery faster with the same precision or quality as non-gamers . I remember many years ago learning that the Israeli Army realized that video game players made the best tank commanders.

Obsessive game playing (“binging”) is NOT needed to boost the brain, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has made recommendations for preventing excessive use of all media by children.   Short, daily intervals of play on fast-action games can reap cognitive benefits. Many so-called “brain games” marketed for improving cognitive skills do not live up to their claims. According to these researchers fast-action video games can because:
1. they are fun,
2. they have careful pacing and levels of play (reduces frustrations of early failures),
3.they require increasing attentional control as the game proceeds,
4. they consistently challenge the player,
5. they provide the successful gamer rewards on different time scales (promotes planning for short and long-term objectives).

The content of the game is very important. Violent, aggressive action games can adversely influence children’s attitudes and behavior. Games involving action sports, real-time strategy (like StarCraft), 3-D puzzles (like Portal 2),or “Prosocial” games that involve cooperation rather than competition are listed as examples of “brain-boosters” by these researchers.

They did not include their opinion of Minecraft , an open-ended, creative game that has captured the imagination of millions of children. This fast-paced, multi-level, 3-D building block game is too hard for this adult to understand or follow. One grandchild agrees and has started an instructional website “Minecraft4Momz” . Take a look on YouTube.

References:
1. The Brain-Boosting Power of Video Games, Sci Am; July 2016, D. Bavelier, Prof. of Psychology, University of Rochester and C.S. Green, Asst. Prof. of Psychology, University of Wisconsin

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