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I was an adult before even PacMan came on the scene, so the appeal of violent video games has always been a mystery to me. My generation had enough opportunities to deal with violence in real life. But science tells us that violent videos train the brain.

Recent research tells us that playing violent video games can enhance vision, spatial attention, and executive function (the ability to make meaningful decisions). Epidemiologists report that over 90% of children and teens play video games, and significant numbers of adults do, too, since the average age of video gamers in the USA is 33. But are the benefits of brain-training worth the repeated exposure to violent images?

Attention, Focus, and Violent Video Games

Advertisers who place ads inside violent video games are keenly interested in the question of whether the gaming experience enhances or inhibits attention to commercial content.

After all, if gamers don't pay attention to the ads, then they don't buy the products that pay for the development of the game. Scientists at the University of Texas at Austin found evidence for a "limited capacity" model of attention during the playing of the game. Teenagers playing a video game are more interested in the game than in the advertising.

However, researchers at Texas A&M International University in Laredo, Texas, found that any changes in the ability of the brain to pay attention while playing violent video games does not necessarily carry over into other daily activities.

The ability to focus on school assignments, for instance, is neither higher nor lower in children who play more video games.

The effects of video games on academic performance may be more of a matter of time management than of the effects of interactive video.

Where violent video games may actually change the brain with positive results is in changing the sense of time. It's natural to pay less attention to activities that have a long-term payoff than those that have a short-term payoff. Since any kind of inattention while playing a video game results in losing the game, hard-core video gamers may be less inclined to pay attention and focus to activities with indefinite future rewards, such as schoolwork.

Improving Visual Skills While Playing Video Games

Scientists at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore conducted an experiment that concluded that teens playing video games (although not necessarily violent video games) develop the ability to compensate for blinking. In the blink of an eye, as many of us experience vision, an object may be lost. When Singapore teens who had not played video games before were invited to the lab to play video games 5 times a week, they developed an ability to continue tracking an object even through a blink and to track multiple objects at the same time.

Eye-Hand Coordination Improvements From Video Gaming

Laparoscopic surgery is an activity that requires the surgeon to have highly refined eye-hand coordination. Professors of medicine at Sapienza University in Rome developed a training program using the Nintendo Wii to train surgeons in the skills that allow them to operate without cutting into their patients. The "Play to Become a Surgeon" program may become a standard part of the school's surgical curriculum.

All of these benefits of video gaming, however, are obtained whether the game is violent or not. Could there be a downside to violent video games that offsets their usefulness in training the brain?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Oei AC, Patterson MD. Enhancing cognition with video games: a multiple game training study. PLoS One. 2013.8(3):e58546. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0058546. Epub 2013 Mar 13.
  • Yoo SC, Peña J. Do violent video games impair the effectiveness of in-game advertisements? The impact of gaming environment on brand recall, brand attitude, and purchase intention. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2011 Jul-Aug.14(7-8):439-46. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2010.0031. Epub 2010 Nov 30.
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