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5 ways video games can befriend your brain

Video games make an easy target for politicians and community leaders pointing to childhood obesity, gun violence and other social problems. However, academics have also explored the potential for video games to uplift our lives and improve the way our brains work. Studies conducted over the past decade have revealed at least five ways that video games could help enhance your brain's performance.

Allied Health

1. Video games for classroom learning

According to Professor Kurt Squire, early versions of educational video games replaced many "drill and practice" routines common among young learners. Squire's research into educational game design found that the most effective digital learning options leave gaps that students must fill with their imaginations. As a result, students gain new experiences and interests while exploring virtual worlds and completing in-game challenges.

In addition, taking on a new identity in a video game can help students overcome challenges or anxieties they feel in the classroom. Studies cited by Nottingham Trent University Professor Mark Griffiths found that video games could level the academic playing field for students with special needs, like dyslexia or attention deficit disorder. Griffiths notes the effectiveness of nonviolent, multiplayer games that heighten challenges for students as they increase their skills.

2. Games can help build muscle memory (and muscles)

Video games don't just expand the mind, they give us the opportunity to master complex physical motions without the stress of corresponding environments or situations. Thanks to biofeedback tools and to controllers that mimic the experience of operating real-world equipment, video games can help us learn how to fly an airplane or how to win at sports.

Research on virtual golf from Yves-Andre Fery and Sylvain Ponserre found that players made the most progress when they watched accurate visual demonstrations and showed desire to gain specific skills from video game simulations. Interestingly, players who closely followed a gauge on a scale measuring their performance showed faster improvement in their actual putting ability than players who only watched a realistic animation of their avatars.

Video games in occupational therapy make use of devices such as Nintendo Wii to offer rehabilitative activities. A study on video gaming for clients with Parkinson's disease found improvements in both motivation and mobility.

3. Video games help us adjust to working remotely

Even though video games can train the brain to handle complex physical maneuvers, you might not want to rely on a surgeon who's only operated on simulated bodies. Medical school researchers from New York discovered that strong video game skills correlate highly with the ability to conduct minimally invasive surgery. Trainees who played video games for about three hours per week reduced their errors during surgical training by more than a third, compared to peers with little or no video game experience.

However, those surgeons weren't absorbed in operating room simulations. In fact, the games they played had nothing to do with saving lives or practicing procedures. After observing young surgeons play off-the-shelf games like Super Monkey Ball 2 and Silent Scope, researchers found that just learning to play video games prepared subjects to handle the complex actions involved in laparoscopic surgery. By making the mental leap between their bodies and their on-screen avatars, the surgeons overcame the challenge of manipulating instruments remotely.

4. Video games help our brains fight aging

Can we shave years from our "brain age" with help from video games? University of Iowa Professor Fredric Wolinsky's study analyzed whether video games could stave off the typical decline in "plasticity" that occurs with age. Wolinsky compared groups of healthy subjects over the age of 50. Compared to a control group that spent a year completing paper crossword puzzles, groups that played a series of brain-teaser video games experienced significant improvements in their concentration while reducing the time they required to overcome distractions.

Wolinsky and his team suggest that an abundance of brain games on websites and in easily accessible app stores can help many of us stay sharp in our golden years. We may just need a little nudge or encouragement to pick up the controller, though. Wolinsky found that players could benefit from a weekly email or phone call to update game statistics and to challenge a rematch.

5. Virtual reality can distract from pain, stress and depression

A 2012 NBC News report documented a military pain management study based on technology developed by psychologists Dr. David Patterson and Dr. Hunter Hoffman at the University of Washington. Their game requires wraparound display goggles and noise-canceling headphones, so players can block out the outside world while throwing virtual snowballs and listening to soft music.

The immersive experience allowed victims of severe burns to forget their pain, soothed by snowscapes and constant activity throughout their fields of vision. Distracting the brain during periods of intense pain could make long-term wound care more tolerable, avoiding the side effects or addiction risks posed by pain relieving drugs.

Caveats on gaming 24/7

Despite our ability to learn new skills and to potentially reverse some of the symptoms of aging, we can still pick up bad habits from spending too much time with video games. According to Psych Central News, some hyperviolent games may encourage aggression, and questions remain about the long-term impact of on-screen violence on our minds. Still, if we select the right titles and set real-world goals for ourselves, video games can potentially become our brains' friends.

About the Author:

Joe Taylor is a Philadelphia-based writer, content strategy professional, and corporate communications consultant. When he's not helping his clients launch world-class websites, he writes about business, careers, technology, and the music industry.