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The Benefits of Video Games

Trent Seely

There appears to be a growing cloud of negativity around video games these days. As recent as last week, elected officials have cited video gaming as bearing a causal relationship with desensitization to violence, extremely aggressive behavior, a sedentary lifestyle, and an inclination towards obesity. I understand why some individuals might draw these conclusions, as there are indeed negatives to excessive gaming, but how many of their claims are grounded in fact and not paranoid speculation? Medical researchers have never been able to say that video games have the ability to make the average gamer turn feral. In fact, the US Supreme Court, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the governments of Australia and Sweden have all recently come to the conclusion that there's no causal link between video games and violence. So, if that claim has been debunked, how many other claims were merely examples of paranoid propoganda, and are there any health and wellness benefits that gamers can derive from their pastime?

"Video games are not a frivolous expenditure of your time," says Dr. James Rosser, director of Beth Israel Medical Center's Advanced Medical Technology Institute. "They have an upside if properly utilized." Truer words were never spoken, Dr. Rosser. As in most cases, video games are only considered beneficial when used in moderation with a healthy lifestyle, but the benefits attached to gaming are pretty astonishing. Over the past couple of years, released studies have demonstrated that some games not only arenít harmful, but may also subtly teach us useful skills applicable to our day-to-day lives.

Dr. Rosser, being a fan of gaming since the advent of Pong in the early 1970s, set out to prove that there's more to gaming than entertainment. He did so by looking at the link between gaming and the laparoscopic surgical skills of twenty-one surgical residents and twelve surgeons during a simulated surgery skills course. In laparoscopy, the surgeon inserts a viewing tube with a small camera via a small incision to examine internal organs via a monitor. They can then insert other instruments to perform procedures. The results of this study will likely make you want to buy a copy of Trauma Center in the near future. Surgeons who had played games at some point in the past made 32% fewer errors, were 24% faster and scored 26% better overall than their non-gamer colleagues, according to the paper published in last February's Archives of Surgery. Even better, surgeons who identified as gamers came out on top, making 37% fewer errors, at a rate 27% faster, and scoring 42% better overall than those who had never played games. This level of improved dexterity has not only been attributed to video games, but has also left researchers considering the use of video games to train people at a very young age for fields outside of surgery, including engineering and lab scientists doing gene therapy. This isn't the only benefit to living part of your life in the pixelated world though.

Video games affect they way we learn and process information. The Federation of American Scientists recently revealed that students remember up to 90% of the information taught to them using simulated environments compared to the 10% via traditional reading. It's the reason why gamers who have played the Assassin's Creed or Nobunaga's Ambition franchises are more inclined to remember the historical context and cultural nuances of those games' settings than non-gamers who read about them. Forbes also recently reported that gamers, on average, can concentrate on up to six things at once, compared to non-gamers' four. They also perform up to 20% more effectively in perception and cognitive tests and have been noted to be 50% better at managing events and spotting details. Quick reflexes in virtual environments, such as attacking or avoiding an enemy or obstacle, actually translate into real world results. According to Daily Tech and UK's Daily Telegraph, the reaction times of gamers have been shown to be nearly as high as fighter jet pilots.

While there is a question as to how detrimental 3D gaming is to our eyesight, there is no doubt that gaming makes our eyes more precise. A University of Rochester study has shown people who played action video games a few hours a day for a month improved their results in a visual acuity test regularly used in ophthalmology clinics by about 20%. To the same extent, if you suffer from a lazy eye or have trouble driving at night, video games may actually help you improve the way your brain uses your eyes. An article published in Nature Neuroscience stated that video games have been known to improve contrast sensitivity. This is why gamers are more likely to be better drivers in foggy conditions than non-gamers.

A study conducted by PopCap Games found that 88% of people surveyed played video games to help alleviate stress. Sure, many gamers see it as a distraction from the hussle of our daily lives, but there's something bigger to why we become less stressed as we play. Gaming lowers levels of the stress-inducing hormone cortisol by up to 17%. Men's Health reported that the puzzle game Bejeweled has also been shown to reduce physical stress activity by 54%. According to a 2009 study, enjoyable leisure activities are associated with psychosocial and physical measures relevant for health and wellbeing, including lower blood pressure, smaller waist circumference, and a healthy body mass index. Not only can games calm you down, but they also make you less likely to retain excess weight and lower the risk of hypertension on your heart and arteries.

The way our body perceives pain can also be augmented by the inclusion of video games. In a recent study, as reported by CNET, patient's pain ratings for burn wounds decreased by up to 50% while playing video games. The Daily Mail reported one study that showed that violent video games increased physical pain tolerance to immediate stimuli by up to 65%. In response, Dr. Jeffrey I. Gold stated that "virtual reality produces a modulating effect that is endogenous, so the analgesic influence is not simply a result of distraction, but may also impact how the brain responds to painful stimuli." It's clear that video games can help us persevere through physical pain by being a distraction, but they've also helped individuals who suffer from long-term pain. According to the UCSF, exercise-based games can be used to help Parkinson's disease sufferers. In a study, after twelve weeks of playing, over 55% of people had improved balance, gait speed, and stronger strides. The incorporation of motion-controlled video games have made legitimate improvements to the lives of these people.

The most common complaint of video gaming is likely that it leads to social ostracism or a sequestered lifestyle, but it would appear that video games make us more inclined to be social and more willing to learn in a group setting. In 2008 a Swedish researcher performed a social study with a group of fifteen year old high school students that were considered by administration to be "under-motivated" and "poorly performing." This group of students were encouraged to play an MMORPG together and their performance both in and out of the game was examined for an entire year. By using World of Warcraft, they were taught about deliberation using proportional representation to vote on where and when they would perform in-game raids. They used mathematical formulae to determine the best DPS (damage per second) for their character builds and they studied economics through the in-game gold markets. Most importantly however, the researchers noted how the students who were often considered to be loners or belonged to very small social groups got to know one another better. Their grades improved substantially, but they saw an even larger increase in their communication skills. This video game setting provided these students with an interactive social platform that the school couldn't compete with, and the students became more social as a result.

It is the argument of anecdotal hearsay that gaming does no favours towards the health and well-being of human relationships. Unfortunately, it looks like the people who say this need to start blaming something else for their marital woes. According to the Toronto Sun, 76% of couples who game together say that it has a positive impact on their marriage. As opposed to being an exclusionary device, if your partner or you is willing to pick up the mantle of Player 2 you might find that quality time together is more attainable and cooperation between you and your partner outside of the virtual world more natural. Proof positive that video games can actually enhance romantic relationships.

Clearly video games are not perfect; anyone can become an overweight couch potato if they opt not to use video games in moderation with a healthy lifestyle. That said, while it's easy for non-gamers to point the accusatory finger at video games for all the world's problems, it's important that we take the time to highlight the many not-so-obvious benefits that gamers are inclined to have as a result of this virtual hobby.

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