Brain gain via gaming

By Christopher Siders ’99

Playing so-called mindless video games significantly improves cognitive skills, according to the July 2016 issue of Scientific American magazine. If I was aware of this at age 13, when I was playing Space Invaders on my Atari, I would’ve been much more relaxed throughout my life. Years later, in no way would I have felt guilty playing Nintendo 64 while sprawled on the floor of my dorm room.

When I was younger, I told my parents video games could make me smarter. Now I can prove it.

During the late 1990s, researchers at the University of Rochester in New York studied the then-unorthodox idea that an adult brain could mend itself by growing new brain cells and rewiring them accordingly. This process is called neuroplasticity. During this study, two professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Daphne Bavelier, Ph.D., and C. Shawn Green, Ph.D., began assessing the impact of video game play on the human brain. They found that individuals who played video games regularly demonstrated improved cognition. Playing video games that require players to shoot aliens or kill zombies showed stunning improvements in participants’ cognitive skill.

gameaddictionCurled up in my dorm room with a bag of Doritos and a two-liter of Pepsi, I was in training, although I didn’t know it at the time. By not getting out of my pajamas until noon, I was exercising my mind. Playing video games, which many adults scoffed at, was helping hone my finely tuned brain.

Research conducted at the University of Rochester also has shown that, through regular video game playing, gamers show an improved ability to focus on visual details, which is a crucial life skill when reading fine print, such as in medical or legal documents. My first job in journalism was at a small legal newspaper. Between reading legal documents that can intellectually paralyze the common man and wading through a conversation with an attorney as I looked for the right quote, I figured my gaming prowess in college must have helped. My editor always seemed to understand what I wrote, and no lawyer ever accused me of misquoting him.

Regular gamers also are better at rotating objects in their mind with better accuracy. Ever try packing a minivan for a family vacation? Or try organizing your dorm room to fit all the things your parents said you’d definitely need? My wife has managed to cram half of dressbarn on her side of our closet. Guess what she did as a kid? Yes, she sat on a bean bag chair playing video games with her brother. I can provide more evidence if you’d like to see a picture of our bathroom. My wife finds room for everything.

Video game enthusiasts also showed improved ability to react to events that unfolded quickly. The reaction time for players improved more than 10 percent when they first started playing mere months before, according to the research at the University of Rochester. These quick reactions are connected with correct decision making under pressure, a skill employers desire. In fact, a family friend works as a trader on Wall Street, but I’ll always remember him as the guy who played World of Warcraft with my brother. I contend there’s a connection between quick decisions on Wall Street and playing World of Warcraft.

In the realm of pro-social behavior, researchers also have found that children and teens who played pro-social games – those that involve characters helping one another – are more comfortable interacting with adults and peers. This is yet another skill employers seek. With many people playing video games online, gamers better know how to communicate clearly, or they’ll lose – or get their head chopped off, depending on which game they’re playing.

Still, the stereotype of gamers as deadbeat students skipping class persists. They sit in their underwear, unshaven, trying desperately to reach the next level of Call of Duty. But think about that game, which, along with Medal of Honor, has become a research tool for educators. Playing these two popular games can result in improved, sustained attention – something we all struggle with as we age – and a better ability to switch between states of mental focus. We’ve all had that meeting at work with Charlie Brown’s teacher, haven’t we? Sustaining attention is important, lest we collapse under the weight of a monotone voice spewing mission statements.

Another rarely discussed skill, which gamers developed during years of playing, is negotiation. My mom always tried to push me outside to experience nature. “Go outside, and enjoy the day,” she said. “No!” I should have said. Now it’s proven that playing video games was an indispensable asset to my development as a student. JCU

Siders is a GED tutor for Seeds of Literacy in Cleveland and an author. His latest book, a children’s book, “Buddy Won’t Fly Away,” is available on Amazon.

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