Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Brain Games

Over many years much attention has been focussed on the alleged ‘effects’ of video gaming such as addiction and a propensity toward violence in real-life as a result of playing violent video games.  It has to be said that after some three decades of research from around the world, science has failed to find a causal link between real-world violence and playing video games.

Okay, I hear you say, tell me something I didn’t know.  And so I will.  Instead of churning over old ground let’s take a look at some of the new and innovative things that are being developed as a direct result of video game play and use.

A recent ‘Horizon’ programme revealed some of the stuff going on out there; stuff which should be, but is rarely reported because, perhaps, it’s less sensational than tabloid stories of disaffected loners rehearsing murderous dreams on their xboxes.

Motor skills – In Holland, a Dutch surgeon, Dr Henk ten Cate Hoedemaker has developed a game called “Underground”.  “A Dutch surgeon has done what?” I hear you exclaim.  “Hasn’t he got better things to do with his time??”   Whoa, steady there!  Yes, technically it’s a game in which you help a girl and her pet robot to escape from a mine.  So far, so dull, eh?  However, the game is especially designed to help surgeons practice their motor skills since the game controller has been adapted to mimic the tools used in micro-surgery.  Now I think that really is smart though I wouldn’t recommend trying micro-surgery at home… could get messy.

Visual abilities – At the University of Geneva they have been testing the visual abilities of gamers vs non-gamers and the results have been interesting.  This has been done by asking test subjects to track the position of multiple moving objects. 

The researchers have found that those who play action games perform much better than those who don’t.  The theory goes that fast action games require the player to constantly switch their attention from one part of the screen to another while also staying aware of other events in the environment.  This, subsequently, is believed to challenge the brain into processing incoming visual information more efficiently.

Brain growth – down at the Max Planck Institute of Human Development in Berlin (where else?) Prof Simone Kuhn has been researching the effects of video games on the brain.  In one study, she used fMRI (functional MRI) technology to study the brains of subjects as they played Super Mario 64 DS, over a period of two months.

During this period it was discovered that three areas of the brain had grown - the prefrontal cortex, right hippocampus and cerebellum - all involved in navigation and fine motor control.

Because the game offers both a 3D and 2D view simultaneously, Prof Kuhn believes that having to navigate the game in different ways is what may be stimulating brain growth.

Mental stimulus – One recent development has involved using video games to tackle mental decline in old age.  At the University of California, Prof Adam Gazzeley and his team have developed a game called Neuroracer.

Aimed at older players, the game requires individuals to steer a car while at the same time performing other tasks.

The team engaged a group of pensioners to play the game and discovered that after some 12 hours of playing, the pensioners had improved their performance so much they were beating 20-year-olds playing it for the first time.

In addition, Prof Gazzeley also measured improvements in the working memory and attention span of the pensioners.  Remarkably, these measurements showed that skills had improved through playing the game and were transferable into the real world.

In may seem incredible, but a time is foreseen when instead of having to take medication for a mental condition, we might just be given a prescription for a specifically targeted video game to be taken three times a day (without water) instead.  Now how good would that be?

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