Science, Tech & Environment

How video gaming could be good for you

rihanna_xbox_451143401.jpg

Pop star Rihanna gaming on an Xbox. (Image: flickr user: gamerscoreblog (cc: by-sa))

The following is a partial transcript; for full story, listen to audio

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Turn off the computer and go outside and play! We've all heard the conventional wisdom that says video games will turn your brain to mush. But a host of new studies show that gaming might actually be good for your health.

Researchers at Nottingham University found that playing certain video games could achieve in one hour what eye patches achieve in 400 hours; while researchers at the University of Rochester found that first-person shooter video games improve visual skills by increasing the brain’s capacity to spread attention over a wide range of events.

But wait, there's more! The Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, N.M., found that Tetris players developed a thicker cortex than those who didn’t play.  And the Nintendo Wii has been helping Parkinson's patients improve balance. So, are video games good for you?

Baratunde Thurston, host of "Popular Science's Future Of," a TV show on the Science Channel, says video gaming has more positive effects than you might think.

He says the research shows that there are several benefits to video gaming. "There's the social; There's a new sort of storytelling format, and the way of interacting with other people. It's a mental workout. It's fun, and there's also the ability to destroy things," said Thurston.

Technology writer Clive Thompson, the blogger for Collision Detection and a frequent contributor to "Wired" and "The New York Times," says some of the studies support the mental workout that players can get from the games.

"There's been studies that show for example, if you play Tetris a lot, it increases the white matter in your brain. And the more white matter in your brain, the more efficient you are at doing certain types of thinking.

"And there's been other studies that show surgeons -- laparoscopic surgeons  -- if they play video games before they do surgery, they actually have almost 40 percent fewer errors. I's sort of getting their hand-eye coordination up to speed before they do a delicate task like that."

When gaming involves multiple players, it encourages both teamwork and individual effort.

"It's a little society and you learn to be a member of a society with the values and reputation and cost that goes with it," said Thurston.

The idea that gaming might improve certain skills shouldn't be too surprising, since pilots and astronauts have long been trained in video simulators.

"The idea that games could affect your behavior is intuitive because all sorts of areas have used them to train people in doing things quickly, said Thompson. "The thing that's really interesting is that the research has started to branch out to look at these unexpected ways that games might be good to you.

"There's a piece  [of research] that came out earlier this year that completely fascinated me, which was the idea that you could us Tetris to treat post-tramatic stress syndrome. Now people think that PTSD as something that happens if you go to Iraq, but it most often happens if you've had a car accident. And what they discovered was if you get someone to play Tetris for 45 minutes or so after a car accident, it might seriously decrease the amounts of flashbacks they have. Essentially it occupies the visual cortex so much that you don't take all those flashbacks images of being in a car accident and read them into your brain as well."

But, Thompson says, there is still that side to gaming that isn't so positive. "Video games are designed to be very addictive. People pay tens of millions of dollars to make these things as addictive as possible. So it's absolutely true that the great danger with them is you'd rather play them than eat."

"The Takeaway" is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

More at thetakeaway.org