Sunday, January 16, 2011

Video games make you smarter?

2011/01/16 NST
LONG after researchers branded video games as possible health hazards, educationists and scientists are now singing a more positive tune. Playing video games, they say, can promote multiple types of intelligence. Young gamers, for one, have been found to do better in class.

In a recently concluded study in Taiwan, students who had played video games showed significant progress in math tests, especially those who were initially weak in the subject.

Aside from marked improvement in logical-mathematical intelligence, researchers from the National University of Taiwan also found positive growth in the students' spatial, interpersonal and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. The last aptitude is one's ability to control bodily motions and handle objects skillfully.
While it would be hard for gamers to develop the agile finesse of a footballer, dancer or gymnast simply by staying rooted in front of the monitor for hours on end, researchers believe there is a correlation between playing games and fine motor skills development.

Games designer Michael Ooi doesn't discount that. Historically, games were created as training tools, he says.

"Humans were once hunters. To be a successful hunter, you have to keep fit. While doing exercises isn't fun, doing sports is and it is a form of a game. So while you play, you're actually training your physical skills, such as reflexes, speed, stamina and strength. Games are tools that make repetitive training tasks enjoyable and motivational."

Most video games, especially those which are action-based, would require hand-eye coordination, reflexes and reaction skills.

Most games involve a huge number of mental tasks, and playing can boost any one of them, says an October 2009 article in Boston Globe.

Fast-paced, action-packed video games have been shown, in separate studies, to boost visual acuity, spatial perception and the ability to pick out objects in a scene.

Complex, strategy-based games can improve other cognitive skills, including working memory and reasoning, it states.

A study in the United States shows that playing shooting or driving games gives a person the ability to monitor more objects in their visual field and do it faster than a non-gamer.

In a series of tests, gaming fans and non-gamers were required to spot an object shown on screen for 1/160th of a second, count the number of objects shown on screen in the same short period of time and identify a white letter shown among a succession of rapidly flashing black letters.

Lead researcher Daphne Bavelier, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, New York, has said that players could process visual information more quickly and tracked 30 per cent more objects than non-players.

"Several game players even achieved perfect scores on tests barely doable for non-game players."

This suggests that action game playing might be a useful tool to rehabilitate visually impaired patients or to train soldiers for combat. Realising this potential, the US military created video games for its soldiers.

"In this genre called serious games, which is getting more popular, games are used for a more serious purpose. The US army uses it as situational training for their soldiers," says Ooi.

Challenges in such games mimic the threats and dangers in real-life combat, requiring soldiers to recognise patterns, make decisions fast, and solve problems.

"One key element in making games is 'immersiveness'. The idea is to make it as real as possible, so when a player plays, his mind is immersed in it," says Ooi, who has been developing games for more than 10 years.

One of the strongest arguments put forth by proponents is that video games promote critical thinking.

Just like how it is in real life, thinking skills are needed in games wrought with challenges, says industrial/organisational psychologist Dr Lin Mei-Hua of Sunway University.

"There's always a goal. You're constantly planning towards achieving the goal. You test out hypotheses.

"In that sense, playing video games maps the decision making process that we encounter in real life."

Video games aren't just hard - they're adaptively hard, says the Boston Globe article.

They tend to challenge people right at the edge of their abilities; as players get better and score more points, they move up to more demanding levels of play.

This adaptive challenge is "stunningly powerful" for learning, said John Gabrieli, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But how much of the skills honed is applicable and transferable to real life remains unknown, and debatable.

It is hard to measure to what extent playing games can impact one's capabilities in life, but Ooi, from his experience, says gamers tend to be better at problem solving and handling challenging situations.

"Critical thinking, thinking on the spot, object association, making decisions, problem solving, creativity, strategising, prioritising and planning, gamers practise these skills sets all the time.

On the negative aspects of gaming such as addiction and aggression, Ooi, who also lectures in a private university, says gaming should come with responsible use.

"Extremity of anything is bad. At the end of the day, the effects are dependent on how and why you do it."

An avid gamer himself, Ooi says one of the biggest lessons he gained from games is to exercise the motivation that comes with gaming.

"Look at the number of hours people are willing to put into overcoming a particular challenge in a game. If you put that type of effort into something else that you want to do, it's applicable to real life."

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