Video Games and the Brain: Harmful or Helpful?

This article is Part 1 of our three-part series on video games.

Have you heard all the noise about video games? Pick up a copy of Time or the New York Times, and you’ll hear an uproar over video games making their players violent and aggressive. But pick up a copy of Psychology Today or tune into NPR, and you’ll find enthusiastic support for video games and their ability to improve cognitive skills.

What conclusions can you draw from this debate?

Most importantly, keep in mind that the jury is still out. How conclusive is research into the long-term cognitive effects of video games? Well, it’s about as conclusive as research about the long-term physical effects of smoking was in the 1950’s. There are just too many conflicting studies on either end of the spectrum. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation cites four distinct studies asserting that video games indeed have a profoundly negative impact on children—but acclaimed cognitive scientist Daphne Bavelier’s TED talk speaks to just the opposite.

In light of this confusion, what are you to do? Ultimately, all we can conclude is that video games focused on violence (like Call of Duty) might affect the brain negatively, while story-based games (like Fable) might affect the brain positively. Remember that not all video games are alike, and that different kinds of video games can affect the brain in different ways. After all, how similar is Grand Theft Auto to Brain Age? How different are Halo and Tetris? And though some might say otherwise, there’s certainly a middle ground between educational games that seem like no fun, and flashy games that entertain—think games like The Sims or Portal,which satisfy just about every kind of gamer.

But how can you figure out exactly which games to pick? How can you become intimately familiar with games without playing them yourself? Just take advantage of the right online resources. At Common Sense Media’s website, you can find unbiased, highly detailed explanations of exactly what each video game entails.

Common Sense Media’s comprehensive database of reviews includes age and difficulty recommendations, breaks down exactly what kinds of positive and negative messages the game sends, and highlights useful comments from children and parents alike. For the highly popular Super Mario 3D World, for example, Common Sense Media notes that the game fosters “Collaboration” and “Thinking & Reasoning” through logic, puzzle-solving, strategy, and teamwork. It also outlines the game’s positive role models, its ease of play, its violence and scariness—the review even explores its coverage of consumerism and its levels of privacy and safety!

As you start accumulating these ideal kinds of games, watch how they’re being played: if you’re becoming frustrated by challenging conceptual puzzles, or struggling with spatial reasoning problems, ask if these problems might extend to academics as well. Take these observations and look at them as insights into how you approach problem solving. Plus, be mindful of the effects your gaming might be having: look out for warning signs of violence or aggression. For example, if you’re screaming at the top of your lungs when you lose or when it’s time to shut the console off, it may be time to cut back on your gaming.

You can see that there are countless ways to be proactive about video games despite inconclusive research—and we haven’t even told you about all the new, innovative games to look out for! (Check our blog next week for the next part of our series on video games.) Until research progresses and the scientific community draws harder conclusions, don’t go banning video games right away—but don’t go flooding your home with consoles either.

Instead, aim for a healthy balance as you do with all your child’s other activities. A healthy amount of gaming time rarely involves random spurts of hours-long gaming here and there; rather, gaming should be structured, and understood as a designated time during which gaming time is given, as a reward. After all, gaming is only great when it supports the most important priority of all: the growth and development of your healthy, budding brain!

How will you change the way you play video games?

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