Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Game On!

My husband and I caved in and bought handheld Nintendoes for our kids this Christmas.  (Thank you, Craigslist!) Though we usually set a 15-minute limit on schooldays, we let our kids play as much as they wanted over the holidays.  When I couldn't stand the peace and quiet anymore, I shooed them out of the house for a little sunshine and exercise.  I quickly learned the downside of handheld gaming devices:

So did those hours of nonstop gaming irreversibly damage our children's vulnerable brains?  Don't worry, I won't rehash the numerous studies linking video games with aggression, attention problems, obesity, depression and suicidality, poor academic performance, addiction, reckless drivingsmoking, alcohol and drug use, hypertension and high cholesterol, inadequate sleep, seizurespulmonary embolism*, ruptured eyeballs, internal bleeding**, five out of the seven deadly sins (greed, sloth, gluttony, lust, avian anger) and the decline of Western civilization.

Because that could get really tedious.

Let's focus instead on the benefits of video games.  As you know, I'm the master of finding evidence to back up how I would parent anyway.  And just to make it a little more challenging, I'm excluding studies of educational games.

Although traditional video games have been linked to obesity and physical inactivity, the newer generation of exergames, like the Wii, have the potential to reverse the trend.  But how much energy is actually expended playing?  A meta-analysis of 18 pediatric studies found that on average, gamers achieve 3.3 "METS," or metabolic equivalents, of activity, which is the equivalent of brisk walking or skipping.  A 60-pound kid would have to play for 90 minutes to burn off one single-serving bag of Doritos (150 calories).  Dance Dance Revolution uses the most energy, followed by Wii Boxing, Wii Tennis, and Wii Bowling.  Only in the virtual world could bowlers be considered reasonably fit.  Unfortunately, video games did not reduce body mass index.

Traditional video games do seem to improve visuospatial skills.  One trial in 10-year-founds found that playing the game Marble Madness improved tests of spatial skills compared to those who played computer word games.  The benefits were greater in girls, who have lower spatial skills at baseline.  Another randomized study found that undergrads who played a total of 6 hours of Tetris improved in tests in mental rotation and spatial visualization, compared to no improvement in those who were assigned to no video games.  Habitual video game players also test higher in measures of visual attention.  They're better at identifying multiple targets and ignoring visual distractions, and they have faster reaction times. In other words, playing video games makes you better at....playing video games.

So can these skills be translated into something marketable?  Well, if you're thinking about getting your tubes tied, maybe you should let your teenager take a crack at it.  One study found that teenaged expert video gamers outperformed obstetric interns on a laparascopic simulator.  (Laparoscopy is surgery performed through 1-inch incisions, with camera guidance.)  At least 10 other studies have found a positive correlation between surgical skills in doctors-in-training and video game experience.  I didn't find this too surprising.  I've done a few sigmoidoscopies (i.e., partial colonoscopies), and they're a lot like video games, only smellier.

And that's about all I found in my research.  I have to admit that the evidence to support gaming in kids isn't the strongest.  At least there aren't any studies showing that video games cause cancer.


*A 24 year-old died after playing video games for 80 hours straight.
**A woman fell off her sofa while playing Wii Tennis.  You can get anything published these days, as long as the mechanism of injury is novel.

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