Surprising Health Benefits of Video Games

Playing videogames can actually change your brain in positive ways by improving creativity, memory, decision-making, and even eyesight, recent peer-reviewed studies suggest.

People who play action-based games made decisions 25 percent faster without losing accuracy, according to one study. The most skilled gamers can make choices and take action up to six times per second—four times more quickly than average, other researchers reported. What’s more, experienced gamers are the ultimate multi-takers, able to focus on more than six things at once, versus four for most people.

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Can violent video games be good for the brain?

Surprisingly, the violent games that parents deplore often have “the strongest beneficial effect on the brain,” the Wall Street Journal recently reported, "These are not the games you would think are mind-enhancing," said cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier, who studies the effect of action games at Switzerland's University of Geneva and the University of Rochester in New York. 

One example is Re-Mission,” a video game in which players pilot Roxxi the nanobot through the bodies of fictitious cancer patients, zapping cancer cells with the Chemoblaster, the Radiation Gun, and the Antibiotic Rocket, and battling side effects of treatment. The goal is to cure the patients—and studies show that the game aids teens and young adults battling cancer in real life by helping them stick to their treatment plan. HopeLab, which created the game, has distributed more than 185,000 free copies in 81 countries.

Now a new study published this March in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS ONE reveals why: playing Re-Mission powerfully activates brain circuits involved in positive motivation, providing mental “rewards” linked with shifts in the patient’s emotions and attitudes. Simply seeing and hearing the same information in a non-interactive format had no effect on reward circuits, the researchers found.

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An Electronic Weapon Against Pain

Sports and fighting video games can create a dramatic level of pain distraction, according to research by Bryan Raudenbush, associate professor of psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University. In one of his experiments, volunteers played various video games with a one-handed controller, while the other hand was immersed in water chilled to a frigid 3 degrees Celsius.

Games that involved sports or fighting were the most effective at distracting the study participants, so they played the longest despite the discomfort, even after researchers controlled for competitiveness. Raudenbush compares the effect to meditating: “If your attention is pulled somewhere, you don’t focus on that pain.”

A virtual-reality video game called SnowWorld helps ease the pain of burn victims during such excruciating treatments as bandage changes and removal of dead tissue. The game creates a polar landscape with gently falling snowflakes and icy rivers to provide a “deep freeze” of distraction, as patients wield a mouse that lets them blast a torrent of snowballs to blow up snowmen and igloos, and causes penguins to cartwheel over with an angry squawk.

Better Grades for Students

While parents are understandably concerned that video games will distract kids from their studies, the game World of Warcraft (WOW) was used as a teaching tool by Swedish researchers. In a year-long study, they used the game in all of their lessons to help “under-motivated” teens who ranked as the poorest performing students.

To learn about politics, the students used proportional representation to vote on where and when they’d launch in-game raids, were taught mathematical formulas to figure out the best damage per second for their character, and studied economics using the game’s gold markets. Not only did the kids’ grades soar dramatically, but those who were loners or had few friends improved their social skills—contrary to the image of gamers as geeky introverts who fixate solely on the screen.

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Five Proven Benefits of Gaming

Research also shows that video games can enhance health in a wide range of ways, including:

  • Greater dexterity.  Laproscopic surgeons who played video games were able to operate 24 percent faster—with 32 percent fewer errors—during a simulated surgery course than those didn’t partake in gaming, according to a study published in Archives of Surgery.
  • Better eyesight. A study at University of Rochester found that people who played action video games a few hours per day for a month improved their visual acuity test results on a standard eye chart by about 20 percent. 
  • Improved mood. In a preliminary study funded by the manufacturer of a video game called Bejeweled, in which players sort gems into rows by color, volunteers displayed improved mood and heart rhythms. The research was published in the Annual Review of Cybertherapy and Telemedicine. Now, PopCap Games plans a second study to see if video games help with depression. 
  • Weight loss. Researchers from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center report that kids ages 10 to 13 burned as many or more calories by exergaming than they did with sports or moderate exercise. 
  • Faster reflexes. Gamers scored higher in reaction times—even in situations not involving a video game—than non-gamers, found a study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science. 

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