Video games: better learning, improved memory, bad driving…

Gaming, Top stories

Video games get a very mixed press. One minute they’re the cause of increased violence and anti-social behaviour, the next they’re able to develop amazing brainpower in children.

Just three stories this weekend prove the diverse range of opinions, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

First up is the news that a number of US educators believe that children would get more excited about school if they were able to play video games instead of reading boring old books.

Admittedly, you won’t find ‘Doom’ or ‘Mortal Kombat’ on the curriculum any time soon, but there are plenty of educational games in development that can teach kids about the world as well as being entertaining:

Educators such as Indiana University associate professor Sasha Barab are developing alternative video games that can teach as well as entertain.

In one game designed by Barab, the player assumes the role of an investigator seeking to find out why fish are dying in a virtual park.

Various theories are offered such as excessive logging or farm fertilizers, and the players share data about water quality and compare hypotheses. If they recommend kicking out the loggers, the park may go bankrupt, giving students a real-world dilemma.

Some experts believe that educational games inspire kids enough that they then turn to books (or, more likely, the Internet) for further learning.

The negative side is that games lead to addiction, and that video games engage children with continuous action (“enthrallment”), that raises the threshold for engagement.

“It’s the equivalent of giving kids a lot of sweets and then wondering why they don’t want to eat regular food,” he said.

Several studies have shown that video-game playing corresponds to higher rates of attention deficit disorder (ADD) among children and are associated with aggressive behavior. Freedman noted, however that cause and effect are difficult to prove.

A second article suggests that computer ‘brain trainer’ software really does work, particularly amongst older people. What’s interesting is that ordinary computer games also have a marked, albeit smaller, effect on brain power:

The study, funded by a grant from game maker CogniFit Ltd, involved 121 volunteers over 50 who used the MindFit training program or a sampling of computer games for three months. Volunteers were divided into groups. They were not told whether they were playing the brain workout program or a dummy program.

Both groups benefited, but the group using the MindFit program showed a statistically significant improvement in spatial short-term memory, spatial learning and focused attention.

There may be benefits for those with some form of cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer’s Disease.

Then come the negative connotations of video games. German research suggests that those who participate in racing games, particularly ones including violence or a requirement to drive recklessly, may become worse drivers in real life.

“Driving actions in these games often include competitive and reckless driving, speeding and crashing into other cars or pedestrians, or performing risky stunts with the vehicle. In short, most actions in racing games imply a very high risk of having an accident or severe crash in a highly realistic virtual road traffic environment,” the researchers wrote.

The researchers first questioned 198 men and women. Those who played the games most often were more likely to report engaging in aggressive and risky driving and getting in auto accidents. Those who played these games less often reported driving more cautiously, the researchers said.

The researchers then studied 68 men and found those who played even one racing game took more risks afterward in traffic situations on a computer simulator than those who played another type of game.

Then the researchers had 83 men play either a racing game or another type of game, and found that those who played the racing game reported more thoughts and feelings associated with risk-taking than the others.

There’s the possibility that driving games could be subjected to the same kind of age restrictions as ‘shooter’ games, due to an apparent impact on traffic safety.

On top of all that, Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto has called for more joyful games.

More video games, fewer books at school?
Memory workouts beat other computer games in study
Video racing games may spur risky driving: study

Andy Merrett
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