It is time for adults to come out of the closet. When talking about video games most people will picture in their minds an adolescent glued to a screen; while it is true that 92% of American children play video games (Gentile, 2011,75), the average gamer is 35 years old (ESA, 2008). Playing games is an investment of time. The majority of gamers devote between 4-20 hours per week to their favorite games (Gentile, 2011, 75) giving birth to the issue of whether players are receiving any benefits or if they are just wasting time and learning violent behaviors. Is playing video games a good thing or a bad thing? The video gaming industry comes under fire in the press constantly as a scapegoat for violent crimes and bad behavior. However, Video games do have virtuous qualities and teach valuable lessons. Video games enrich cultures by satisfying genuine human needs and improving the players’ daily lives through the use of psychology, cognitive science and sociology. “Properly controlled training studies have repeatedly demonstrated a causal link between video game playing and enhanced abilities” (Bavelier & Green, 2011, 763).
Games challenge people to use their personal strengths, collaborate with others and develop critical thinking skills. Games are cleverly designed to engage players with various skill sets then adapt to higher degrees of difficulty as the players’ skills increase. Players are kept motivated through immediate feedback systems of increasing levels, power-ups, energy boosts and rewards. Gameplay triggers the release of dopamine (Gentile, 2011, 766), a natural feel-good chemical that fuels the player’s desire to compete and empowers him or her to strive to success. This emotional activation to use an individual’s energy on something he or she is good at is accompanied by the activation of the centers in the brain that assist in cognitive reasoning skills. A player receives the feel-good benefits of gaming whether he or she wins or loses. A player can expect to lose 80% of the time (McGonigal, 2011, 63) and yet because there is hope the player continues to play. Game designers use psychology and neuroscience research to create games that apply the principles of what motivates individuals to keep that hope alive. Researching the brain reveals the learning process of players which designers use to keep the games challenging.
The media, however, bombards the public with stories that the only thing learned from the playing of video games is aggressive thoughts and behaviors. There is little reported on the pro-social effects of video games. The lessons learned playing pro-social video games travels the same cognitive route through the brain as violent games. When questioned on the negative effects of video games, Daphne Bavelier at the Brain & Vision Lab in the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York, replied: “There is no question that the same characteristics that make many games effective teachers of perceptual and cognitive skills can also be harnessed to produce maladaptive effects on brain and behavior. Violent video games alone are unlikely to turn a child with no other risk factors into a maniacal killer” (Bavelier, et.al, 2011, 764). Therefore, it is the content of the game that determines the benefits and outcome of playing. It is as simple to program a game for pro-social tendencies as it is aggressive behavior.
The programing of pro-social behavior can be found in the so-called violent games. Games such as, World of Warcraft and Halo require players to form social groups in order to complete quests and advance in the game. Experiencing games as a part of a large group of players who have to protect the human race and save the world gives epic meaning to the game and the player a reason to participate and collaborate with others. Blogs and bulletin boards are used to assist players in the developing of game strategies. According to Douglas Gentile from the research lab in the department of psychology at Iowa State University, “many posts include detailed scientific and mathematical models to explain game features. Thus, the game content creates an environment that fosters and models informal scientific reasoning practices” (Gentile, 2011, 78). The sharing of information does not just benefit the individual players but makes the entire virtual community a better place to play. The effects of the virtual communities created in online gameplay spill over into reality. Tobias Greitemeyer from the School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Falmer, England & Silvia Osswald, Department of Psychology, Ludwig-Maximilians-University, Munich, Germany conducted multiple experiments testing the theory that pro-social video games lead to pro-social behavior.
The results were positive. Participants who played pro-social games were by far more likely to be helpful and assist others. “Playing pro-social games increases unrequested and requested helping as well as low-cost and high-cost helping” (Greitemeyer, 2010, 219). The positive pro-social effects are achieved with as little as ten minutes of playtime. Furthermore, players who are home alone can avoid feelings of isolation by “chatting” with their online neighbors. In Farmville a pro-social game, players are required to go visit their neighbor’s farms and lend a hand with the feeding of chickens or plowing the land. Players get a feeling of satisfaction when they help their neighbors. The rewards of the feel-good emotions provide motivation for players to fully dedicate themselves to participate in the game while developing a sense of responsibility to their communities.
A longitudinal study discovered that “children who played more pro-social games early in a school year demonstrated increased helpful behaviors later in the school year” (Gentile, 2011, 764). Schools now use video games to teach children reading, writing, math, history, and just about every subject taught. Games use techniques similar to those used by the most effective schoolteachers. They give clear directions that take into consideration prior knowledge and skill levels that allow players to progress at their own pace (Gentile, 2011, 767). The medical field has also recognized the benefits of using video games to teach children. Young cancer patients learn about their disease and the importance of taking their medications while children with chronic conditions play video games that teach them how to spot warning signs and take care of themselves. “Research has found these games to have a greater effect on children’s healthcare compliance behaviors than giving children pamphlets with the same information” (Lieberman, 2001, 379). Physicians have not only used video games to help patients understand complex medical situations but also use video games to increase their own skills.
Virtual patients are now used to train doctors in diagnostic and surgical procedures. “In a study of laparoscopic surgeons, those who had played video games in the past for at least 3 hours per week were 27% faster and made 37% fewer errors on advanced surgical skills” (Rosser et al., 2007, 183). Numerous studies confirm that playing video games increase hand/eye coordination, reasoning skills and memory, thereby, confirming that video games are a valuable teaching tool. Video games are used to train military personnel, members of the police departments, firefighters and many other forms of first responders. The games are able to simulate real life and death situations which allow first responders to prepare themselves for the challenges that they may encounter in the event of a natural disaster or a man-made crisis. Playing video games repeatedly allows the first responder to practice the necessary skills until they become automatic. Repeated exposure to the situations virtually can also reduce panic and stress levels when the first responders encounter the situations in reality because they are no longer unfamiliar with the situations and how to handle them.
Video game technology was used in the development of one of America’s most effective military aids; the unmanned drone. The drones are operated by pilots who may be sitting in their home office in pajamas thousands of miles away from the conflict and war. A drone pilot (whose name must be withheld) describes the drone program as “the coolest video game ever played that has real life and death consequences”. The drones save the lives of our military men and women every day. Playing video games is neither good nor bad. Whether you are a proponent or a critic of their use, you are right! Video games do have an effect on players’ brains, behaviors, and everyday lives. Video games influence our school systems, emergency response teams, medical treatments and military strategies. The line between virtual worlds and reality is becoming blurred as game designers use research studies to create more effective games. The designers should do their best to increase the benefits players receive while minimizing any potential harmful effects. It is up to the consumers to use their buying power to sway the designers to create more pro-social video games and to incorporate teaching tools with critical thinking skills into their products.
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