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Video Games and Brain Development: Not So Bad

Working on that spatial cognition?

Oh the video games.  Kids love ‘em!  Parents, not so much.  How could we?  There are all those studies about the violent video games making a child prone to bullying and aggressive behavior.

Other studies about video games attention problems (then again, they may just appeal more to children with attention issues).

In fact, violent video games can be so bad that this Fall, the Supreme Court heard an argument on whether or not they should be banned in California.

Steve Johnson claims they help with attention in an ADHD world, but ADHD is a brain disorder, not the same as living in a fast paced world.  So is there anything really good that can come out of playing video games? Turns out there is!  According to the NPR report, research by several scientists shows video games can have a positive impact on several different brain functions and aspects of brain development.

Daphne Bavelier, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, found video games can help improve a gamer’s ability to distinguish between shades of grey, something called “contrast sensitivity.”  Gamers are also able to shift focus faster than non-gamers, making them better at multi-tasking. (Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is up for debate, but multi-tasking is something we all have to do.)

Video games can also improve spatial cognition, or the ability to manipulate 3-D images, which is a crucial skill for engineering and math. Apparently, men test better at this than women.  But Jay Pratt, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto found that after 10 hours of video game training women’s scores in spatial cognition improved, closing the gender gap.  Pratt found playing video games also expanded the gamer’s “useful field of view,” or the visual area a person can take in at any one time.  He says:

“Video game players are able to pick up very subtle, statistical irregularities in environments and use them to their advantage,” Pratt says. “And these same irregularities in environments are the things that help us guide our behaviors on a daily basis.”

No big surprise, eye-hand coordination also improves when you play video games.

Of course these brain based skills have nothing to do with the social or emotional experience of playing violent video games that ask you to blow up the enemy.  Managing that side of the video equation is up to you.  There’s the banning approach, or the approach that says the kids will play these games anyway, so set reasonable limits and talk to your kids about them.  Writing in Babble earlier this year, Andrew Leonard described what he does when his son is playing a violent video game:

When my son spends an hour talking about an escapade in “World of Warcraft” or “Team Fortress II,” I try to draw connections between virtual war and real war, without being heavy-handed. I check in on him while he’s playing — his computer is in the dining room between our kitchen and family room, so he is always part of the house dynamic, rather than squirreled away behind closed doors.

Good advice.

Will you be giving video games for Christmas?  How do you set the rules?

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