Editorial: Healthful Gaming

Hello, and welcome to Friday! Video games are an easy target for the media who are looking for scapegoats to blame for making children lazy and overweight. Any high profile murderer usually ends up having his actions blamed on his choice of video game rather than his psychological state. Games are not at fault in either case. The mentally disturbed need little provocation to initiate violence and children just need to get out more. Today we will be looking at the health benefits that come with spending time enjoying our favourite medium.

Just don't interrupt me during a boss fight.
The modern media view of games.

First and foremost, gaming is fun. Having fun is good for your health. That sentence probably sells itself, but it is backed up by a study of leisure time and associated health benefits. In 2009 researchers found that participants in the study who enjoyed more leisure activities had lower blood pressure, total cortisol, waist circumference, and body mass index, and perceptions of better physical function. On the other hand, lack of leisurely pursuits is linked to several less than desirable outcomes, like lack of energy, lowered immunity to illness and strained relationships.

So gaming is fun and fun is healthy, but there are more specific benefits to gaming. Research dating back to the early 1980s has consistently shown that playing computer games (irrespective of genre) produces reductions in reaction times, improved hand-eye co-ordination and raises players self-esteem. Curiosity and the nature of the challenge also appear to add to a games educational potential. People often overlook the fact that character dialogue in games helps children develop their reading comprehension skills; score keeping aids their efforts to grasp basic mathematics; and their ability to communicate improves because gaming facilitates discussing and sharing.

When playing games with my son, I often find he tries to read text on the screen, sounding out words he does not know and asking me to explain their meaning to him. While playing Lego Batman 2 he comes across characters he can purchase. He can see if he has enough money to buy them, or if not, work out how much he needs to collect to do so. When the day is over and he heads home, he explains to anyone who will listen how to play his favourite game and what he has been up to recently.

Games can be used to educate in specialised jobs as well. Many pilots, soldiers and even surgeons have honed their important skills by training on simulators. A 2007 study, for example, found that surgeons who played for at least 3 hours a week made fewer errors and completed operations faster than their non-gaming colleagues.

Here sonny, would you like to play some Pokémon?
Granny Gamer

An older generation of gamers are looking to games to keep their minds active. Puzzle games are perfect for keeping the mind sharp. The elderly have relied on crosswords and number games in the back of the local paper for years, but now they have access to a wealth of puzzles on mobile platforms that they can take anywhere. My own mother plays Sudoku on her DS every night before she goes to sleep. Playing on a gaming device means that traditional games can also be bought and the elderly can enjoy all the other health benefits that come with playing a variety of games.

Inevitably someone tries to argue that gaming is detrimental to society because it promotes violent behavior and discourages physical activity. Critics of gaming also have research to support these conclusions, but they are hotly contested. Some scientists have pointed out that there is no correlation between real world violence statistics and the rising popularity of video games. Others have argued that depression in young people is a much better predictor of violent behavior than exposure to video games. While it is true that fat kids play a lot of video games, childhood obesity has more to do with our offsprings’ diets than it does how much Call of Duty they play.

The debate will probably continue for many years. Concerned parents and politicians, and a growing gaming industry, all but guarantee the controversy has not reached its end. It is also apparent, however, that video games benefit society in many ways, and have the potential to do so to an even greater extent in the future. We should pay attention to how our favorite forms of entertainment affect us, but exaggerating their negative effects would be just as dangerous as ignoring them.

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