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By Nancy Hopkins on

The health benefits of gaming

Gaming’s had a bad rap over the years. From being blamed for contributing to the rise in childhood obesity to an increase in violent crime, those pesky pixels have a lot to answer for.

But nothing is all bad, right? So with Power UP still on (and tickets still available), let’s delve into the possible health benefits of sitting in front of a screen and pretending you’re a hedgehog with blue hair.

 

Sonic the Hedgehog
The one hedgehog we all want to be: Sonic

 

Increased hand to eye coordination

In 2014, this study at the University of Toronto found that action video games such as Halo, Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty helped gamers learn a new sensorimotor skill quicker than non-gamers.

36 participants (18 gamers and 18 non-gamers) were asked to keep a small green square cursor at the centre of a white square moving target, which moved in a complicated, repeating pattern. This tests sensorimotor control because participants see the moving target and they try to coordinate their hand movements to match it.

In the early stages of the experiment, all participants were on a similar level but by the end of the experiment the gamers were powering ahead and had taken all the gold coins (metaphorically speaking)

The gamers were much better at following and learning a novel sensimotory pattern than non-gamers, a hypothesis which was proved in the second part of the experiment.

In the second stage, researchers wanted to test that gamers had better learning skills and not just better sensorimotor control.

To eliminate the learning component, participants tracked a moving dot, but in this case the patterns of motion changed throughout the experiment. This time neither the gamers nor the non-gamers improved as time went by, confirming that learning was playing a key role.

So, if gaming improved hand to eye coordination, could games be used to train surgeons of the future?

A study of laparoscopic (small incision) specialists found that those who played for more than three hours per week made 32% fewer errors during practice procedures compared to their non-gaming counterparts.  I guess as long as they weren’t training on Theme Hospital, this is a positive thing…

Theme Hospital
Watch out for exploding heads – Theme Hospital

Helping kids with autism

There have been some scare stories in the press about gaming and autism and also some robust scientific studies that show for certain individuals with autism, transitioning from video game play to other activities can make them argumentative and oppositional, especially when they want to play more.

Role-playing and reward games (like Pokémon) can also generate a very intense interest in the game, which can result in overuse.

However, scientists are also acknowledging the potential benefits that gaming could have for kids with autism.  There’s the opportunity to practice social skills for a start, as it gives them a shared interest with peers and they can game together. It also helps them recognise social cues and conventions, as they have to learn the social customs of the game world when playing massive multiplayer online games like Minecraft or World of Warcraft.

Kids with autism can be inflexible and rigid in their problem-solving, but repetitive and inflexible behaviours just don’t cut it in the gaming world. Video games by their nature require flexibility as what works on level 1 to defeat a baddy won’t necessarily work on level 2.

The willingness to persist in the face of failure helps develop important problem-solving skills in the game, which translate positively into real life scenarios.

Minecraft
Feeling a little square this morning? – Minecraft

Apps

Ok so not technically games per se, but apps are increasingly used to ‘gamify’ parts of our lives (see our blog on the gamification of banking), and fitness is one such area.

The athlete’s app of choice is Strava, which is a bit like Facebook for the virtuous. You can upload up to 31 types of activity (running, swimming, yoga etc.) to your profile, which you can then share with your followers.  You can track your times, beat personal bests but, best of all, you can climb up the leaderboard and nick ‘King of the Mountain’ accolades from your mates (or random strangers).

Whilst it might lead to unhealthy level of competitiveness and Strava geekery, knowing that you’ll be judged by your peers does tend to make you run that little bit further and train a little bit harder. Plus you can eat more cake afterwards.

Chris Froome's Strava profile
Chris Froome’s Strava profile – Do you match up?

So are we creating monsters?

A lot of the scare stories around gaming are unfounded. This 2018 study at the University of York found no evidence to support the theory that video games make people more violent.

The study looked at the concept of ‘priming,’ the idea that exposing players to concepts in games makes those concepts easier to use in real life. In this case, the researchers were looking at the priming of violence in video games and increased violence in real life.

Previous studies have had mixed conclusions around priming, so researchers at York involved 3,000 participants in order to gather a robust sample.

Researchers tested the reaction times of participants who, if they had been primed, should be able to categorise objects associated with the game they had played more quickly in the real world once the game had concluded.

However, this was not the case. Participants who played a car-themed game were no quicker at categorising vehicle images, and indeed in some cases their reaction time was significantly slower.

The team also wanted to see if realism in games influenced the aggression of players. Previous research has suggested that the more realistic the game, the more ‘primed’ players are by violent concepts leading to antisocial behaviour in the real world (think Grand Theft Auto style driving skills)

Grand Theft Auto
Casually walking away from spilling ketchup on the floor – Grand Theft Auto

The team created two different combat games, one that used ‘ragdoll physics’ to create realistic character behaviours and one that did not. Both animated worlds looked real.

After the game, the players completed word puzzles called ‘word fragment completion tasks’, where researchers expected more violent word associations would be chosen for those who played the game that employed more realistic behaviours. This was not the case.

So, there you have it: Gaming can be good for you. It can encourage us to exercise more, help us improve our social skills, and in the future, it might be a key training tool for some of our most important jobs. Plus, fresh air is definitely overrated.

Get your tickets for Power UP on our website here.

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