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Allow me to preface this post by saying that I do not play video games often. My experience with this media goes as far as pre-2010 Sonic games and the Lego adaptations of series. That’s not to say that I, for lack of a better word, suck at video games; I hold my own in a video game if I know what it is. I just don’t turn to video games often; I prefer books.

In previous posts I wrote about the impact of electronic media on modern society and the effects of screen time. In both I focused on television and leaned more toward the negative effects. In a recent debate with a friend, video games took center stage. The conversation began after I remarked, “I think books are better than video games.”

My friend launched into a passionate defense of video games, building his argument on two points: 1) you shouldn’t pit two media against one another and judge them by the same standards, and 2) video games, though often regarded as merely entertainment-minded, are able to tell impactful stories. In the end, acknowledging the concreteness of his points, I amended my statement to “I prefer books over video games.”

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Image from 50 a Year

As a non-gamer, I didn’t have much basis for arguing against video games and, as I stressed in a previous post, disagreement without understanding is irrelevant. Me condemning video games without having played many is akin to my friend condemning the Twilight series when he has neither read the books nor watched the movies. (I read the books and didn’t care for the story, but that’s for another post.)

We build our opinions around second-hand evidence and hearsay, and these opinions ultimately crumble when faced against someone with first-hand experience.

I won’t spend this post arguing for books over video games or video games over books because one cannot fairly compare apples to oranges. Instead, I want to explore a little about the merits of video games.

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Mental Benefits

Based on a study of over 600 healthy seniors (age 50 and over), the cognitive complexity of some video games may slow mental decay. In a study from the University of Iowa, the participants were randomly distributed to four groups. In a 5- to 8-week period, one group played at least 10 hours of computerized crossword puzzles while the other played as much of a game called “Road Tour.” The latter challenged the players’ mental processing and peripheral vision. At the end of the test period, the “Road Tour” players exhibited a 70% increase in mental processing speed.

In a 2010 study of 34 healthy young adults, 17 who categorized as video game players (VGP) and 17 who categorized as non-video game players (NVGP), researchers suggested that VGPs had greater cognitive flexibility than NVGPs. They assessed this based on reaction time to the appearance of global and local stimuli.

Video games have the potential to alleviate the hindrances of dyslexia. In 2003, neuroscientist Paula Tallal and her colleagues discovered through functional MRIs that children with dyslexia exhibited little activity in the left temporoparietal regions of their brains, which processes language cognition. They designed computerized video games to activate that area of the brain. After this video game intervention, the brains of dyslexic children operated similar to non-dyslexic children.

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Image from Brain Sciences Foundation

Executive Functioning

Research focused on action video games has found that their speeds, perceptual and motor loads, and other characteristics enhance selective attention over space and time and attention to objects. These benefits refer to the ability to focus on a target without distraction from surroundings, to sidestep attentional blink, and to track independently moving objects.

In line with this increased attention, video games have also improved multi-tasking. Researchers gathered 49 undergraduates from the California State University, all non-gamers, and divided them into an experimental group that would play at least five hours of video games every week for ten weeks and a control group that would not. The participants took the Multi-Attribute Task Battery both before and after the ten week experiment period. After the ten weeks, the video game group completed the MATB with increased performance and fewer errors.

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Social Skills

A meta-analysis of 98 studies involving 36,965 participants suggested that the social effects of video games depend on genre. More specifically, violent video games promote aggressive behavior, but prosocial video games promote prosocial behavior. (In this study, prosocial video games were those that had little to no violence.)

The actual positive or negative effect of video games may also hinge on the game context. Dr. Douglas A. Gentile of Iowa State University hypothesizes that social support in a multiplayer virtual universe, such as World of Warcraft, offsets the violence if players focus on the teamwork elements of the game more than on the aggression. In this way, video games can encourage teamwork and develop prosocial skills.

Another aspect of society that video games touch is morality. While some games have specific philosophical purposes, in others the morals are hidden beneath the surface. Research from the University of Victoria even proposes that video games develop the ethical and moral awareness of children. Like any form of media, a video game can serve as a lens to ourselves and the world we’re shaping.

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Despite their bad rap, video games do have their benefits; while I still maintain my preference for books over video games, I cannot deny this. What are your thoughts on the effects of video games?