Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Value of Videogames

by Richard Crews
The brain has a built-in "delight of mastery" (DOM) response; in other words, there is pleasure from learning sensory-motor skills. This is obviously both a success advantage for an individual and an evolutionary advantage for a species.

Games are fun because of this DOM response. If we participate in a game, we advance certain skills; every game is designed to reward this. If we observe a game rather than play it ourselves (as with spectator sports), we identify with the performers and indulge in the satisfying fantasy, "I could do that."

[By the way, humor is also based on the DOM response; perhaps that will be the basis for another essay.]

The skills we learn (or enhance) playing games are either mental (as with the games of chess and go) or physical (as with such sports as football, baseball, tennis, or golf).

Over the past few decades a new variety of games, videogames, based on evolving computer technology has captured imaginations and markets throughout the industrialized world. Many parents restrict--or at least lament--the "wasted" hours their children spend shooting down alien spacecraft, destroying monsters, or finding ridiculous, hidden, magic items. It has only recently come to the fore that these games provide useful learning experiences.

First was the discovery that a few hours playing a videogame involving three-dimensional manipulation of visual objects leveled the playing field between boys and girls in spatial acuity. This had been the last bastion of statistical differences in IQ between the sexes. On all other dimensions of IQ testing--vocabulary, problem solving, numeracy, etc.--boys and girls seemed on a par. But perhaps because of the cultural inclination to have girls play with dolls and boys play with action toys, the statistical difference in spacial acuity appeared by age ten and persisted well into adolescence. However, with only a few hours of suitable videogame experience, this difference disappeared.

As to what else a child learns from playing videogames, there are several other major skills that stand out. The most obvious of these is visual-motor coordination. Videogames provide practice coordinating finger and hand responses (on a keyboard or with a joystick) to stimuli on a video screen. Another skill set, equally obvious in retrospect, is comfortable facility with electronic devises. This has led to the familiar perspective that if you have trouble working your home computer system, you should find a teenager to help you with it.

In addition an important cognitive ability that a child can enhance by playing certain videogames involves problem solving, particularly trying a variety of approaches and thinking "outside of the box." One popular genre of videogames rewards turning over imaginary rocks, looking behind invisible screens, and all manner of imaginative attempts to work toward a solution. The player is challenged again and again to think of new, varied, different, and unusual approaches.

The next mental-emotional skill that is enhanced by playing certain videogames is subtle but very important, namely, learning to respond calmly and logically in an emergency situation. Prior to the advent of videogames, no one had had the experience--much less hundreds or thousands of practice episodes--of being fractions of a second away from death and destruction. The post-videogame generation has the capacity to respond to an evolving automobile crash or house fire with cool, calm, calculating efficiency. (I postulate, by the way, that playing world-destruction-type videogames is protective against developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]; an epidemiological study will soon emerge demonstrating that soldiers who played this type of videogame in adolescence are less prone to developing PTSD.)

Also of importance for us oldsters is the role that videogames can play in delaying and counteracting the mental declines of old age. The phenomenon of "use it or lose it" is well known in the elderly. In many studies (and anecdotes), the senior citizen who continues to use particular verbal, numeracy, or other mental skills preserves those skills far beyond their age-mates. Properly prescribed videogames can be a fun way to preserve mental abilities in old age.