When video games mess with brains, something good happens, sometimes

SECOND OF TWO PARTS — Ever since some kid shunned fresh air for a game of Pong — one of the first home video games — back in 1975, scientists (and parents) have been debating the merits and malignancies of such play. And as the video game landscape has become richer, so has the research. But despite decades of study, scientists are still asking the 64 kilobyte question: Do video games boost brain power or damage it? The answer is simple: It’s complicated.

“One can no more say what the effects of video games are, than one can say what the effects of food are,” write brain scientists Daphne Bavelier and C. Shawn Green in a forum on brains and video games published in the December 2011 Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Just as Twinkies, blood sausage, spinach and apple pie all fall under the rubric of consumable substances, Tetris, Call of Duty, Civilization and Grand Theft Auto are just a handful of the thousands of video games that may (rot) (improve) the mind.

On the improvement front: Evidence from several labs and studies suggests that playing “action” video games, in which obstacles are overcome with quick reflexes and the ability to detect and target small differences, can improve visual and attention skills. Work by Bavelier and others found that playing Call of Duty 2 and Atari’s Unreal Tournament improved the player’s contrast sensitivity (the ability to discern shades of gray and objects that don’t stand out from the background). Contrast sensitivity problems can make it hard to see traffic lights or a lit burner on a stove. That research, published in Nature Neuroscience in 2009, suggests that playing similar games might complement standard eye- correction therapies. And more recent work finds that playing such games can improve vision in people with cataracts.

So for some, games like Call of Duty 2 may be like nutritious vegetables, giving the brain’s visual circuitry a boost. But what if you don’t have eye problems? In some instances those skills may transfer anyway. Air-traffic controllers, for example, might see improvements in their attention to peripheral details after playing similar games, developmental psychologist Douglas Gentile notes in the Nature Reviews Neuroscience forum. And laparoscopic surgeons — who conduct real surgery while looking at a monitor — seem to perform faster and make fewer errors if they’ve practiced with a game, says Bavelier.

But for many games, playing them improves only your ability to play that game well. End of story. Playing a lot of Tetris, for example, makes you skilled at rotating objects in space. Perhaps a forklift driver rearranging shipping crates or someone packing boxes into a UPS truck might see slight on-the-job improvements (to my knowledge, those studies have not been done). But basically, playing Tetris makes you better at playing Tetris.

“You do a task over and over again and you become really good at that task,” says Bavelier, of the University of Rochester in New York. This is “the curse of learning specificity.” And depending on what you are learning, research suggests that becoming good at certain games can be a curse.

Some game playing does seem to hurt, rather than help your brain. Research suggests, for example, that playing a lot of fast action games makes it harder to stay focused on slower streams of information, the kind delivered in a classroom. And playing some violent video games can train the brain to think aggressively long after the game is over.

Researchers who study the effects of video games are quick to emphasize that assessing whether someone will become a maniacal killer after playing a shoot-’em-up video game has a lot to do with other risk factors, such as that individual’s home life and genetic makeup. But evidence supports the notion that people who spend a lot of time playing video games with antisocial or violent content become less empathetic — and more likely to engage in confrontational behavior in the real world.

When we practice at being vigilant for enemies or reacting quickly to potential threats, we are rehearsing a script, writes Gentile. Ordinary events, such as someone bumping into you on the street or looking at you funny, may prompt a much more intense reaction if you’re all keyed up from hours of game playing.

Normally, human beings experience stress when they observe or participate in antisocial actions such as extreme violence. But through practice, those experiences can become easier and less stressful. Soldiers, policemen or emergency room technicians may benefit from such training, notes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich. But “there is a serious question as to whether or not intensive exposures to such scenarios contribute positively to empathy and human understanding in the greater society.”

So perhaps with many video games, as with certain foods, the key is moderation. Man can’t live on Pokémon alone.

SN Prime, February 27, 2012 | Vol. 2, No. 8

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