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Video games are a $25 billion industry in the US, with 99% of boys and 94% of girls playing video games. It seems that not a day goes by without there being a new shock story about the dangers of video games, with video game-playing children condemned as being unsocial weirdoes with the potential to become violent, grab a deadly weapon and start shooting their classmates as though they were nothing more than pixels in a shooter game (It's been reported that both Sandy Hook Elementary School murderer, Adam Lanza, and the Columbine High School killers played violent video games for up to 16 hours a day).
But is it necessarily true?
A review by the American Psychological Association suggests that we need to examine the benefits of video games. Isabella Granic et al, of Radboud University in the Netherlands, explain that the nature of video games has changed substantially, becoming more complex, realistic and social. To demonstrate this, they examine several of the most popular games of 2011:
- World of Warcraft: a multiple-player experience, enjoyed by more than 12 million players who regularly log on to customise their fantasy personae, explore ever-changing vistas, and engage in battle with human and computerised opponents.
- Starcraft 2: a complex chess-like strategy game that requires players to balance multitasking with securing resources, amassing an army and battling opponents
- The Sims 3: a game where players develop a virtual family, learning new skills, maintaining steady employment and building relationships
- Halo 4: a first-person game where players have to work alone, or over the internet with others, to kill alien races
- Minecraft: using Lego-like pieces to construct vast virtual worlds, which are then shared with others
The vast variation between five popular games, Granic et al suggest, make it impossible to draw a picture of a stereotypical "gamer", let alone that antisocial loser who sits in his room until the early hours and may become violent, and who is so often depicted in the media.
Still, we do need some kind of definition. What is a gamer?
For the purposes of this article, we're using the definition suggested by Granic et al. A gamer is a person who plays any kind of video game regularly, for one hour or more every day.
Playing video games has many potential cognitive effects:
More creativity: Jackson et al (2012) reports that playing video games (regardless of the type) is positively reported with an increase in creativity. The same is not found with any other type of technology (the internet, computers, cell phones).
Improvements in visual contrast sensitivity: 50 hours of video gaming (spaced over ten to twelve weeks) increased sensitivity to the perception of colour, including subtle differences in shades of grey.
Treatment of Ambylopia: Ambylopia (lazy eye) is a disorder where one eye becomes non-functioning. In a study by Li et al (2011), people with Ambylopia were given a video game to play, with their good eye covered. They showed great improvement, with some patients achieving 20/20 vision or better. The same did not happen when Li et al gave patients other tasks, including knitting or watching television with their good eye covered.
Improved spatial awareness: Gamers may be better drivers. Green and Bavelier (2012) found that action gamers had a better ability to locate a target in a field of distractors.