Are video games good for you? New research suggests the answer is yes
CHICAGO » Imagine a hard-core video game fanatic, and the picture you summon probably won’t resemble Roman Rivera.
He grew up captivated by games from "Pokemon" to "Call of Duty," and evaded his mom’s screen time limits by covertly playing his Game Boy after lights out. Now that he’s 21, he spends up to four hours a day battling enemies in the virtual arena of "Dota 2."
Yet he was an honor student and a member of the debate team at suburban Downers Grove North High School, and today he’s studying economics at the University of Chicago. These accomplishments didn’t come in spite of gaming, Rivera said; in a way, gaming helped to make them possible.
"You pick up skills from whatever you do, and you can decide to aim those skills in an intellectual direction," he said, crediting video games with broadening his interests and improving his mental dexterity.
Rivera’s belief echoes a new wave of research that has found surprising advantages in an activity that many dismiss as a waste of time, if not an outright menace. Social scientists have recently linked gaming with enhanced mental skills, moral sensitivity and even physical fitness, creating a new image of this ubiquitous but controversial pastime.
"We’re working really hard on understanding what aspects of gaming could be leveraged for the betterment of society," said Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive neuroscientist who researches video games at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and the University of Rochester in New York. "Everyone understands it’s here to stay. It’s not going to disappear."
Researchers have done thousands of studies on gaming since the 1980s, often with negative results. Some associated video games with an increased risk of epileptic seizures, while others cautioned that the games could provoke dangerously elevated heart rates. Many studies linked violent games to aggression and anti-social behavior.
Such findings contributed to the anxiety surrounding video games, said Christopher Ferguson, a psychology professor at Florida’s Stetson University. He cited the outcry over violent games that came when Newtown gunman Adam Lanza was portrayed as a shooting-game obsessive (investigators ultimately found that Lanza’s primary gaming fixation was "Dance Dance Revolution").
Ferguson said early research into any new technology is often flawed. Studies that aim to find negative effects get funded and promoted, while those with more benign findings are unpublished, he said.
When a new generation of scholars more familiar with the technology comes along, different results often appear, he said.
"We’re just not seeing the kind of data emerge that would support the techno-panic that was common in earlier years," he said.
Ferguson has done dozens of studies on the subject and has consistently found that violent video games do not contribute to societal aggression. One recent project actually concluded that some children who play violent games are less likely to act like bullies.
Another counterintuitive take on video game violence came from University of Buffalo communications professor Matthew Grizzard, who had research subjects play a first-person shooter game as either a United Nations soldier or a terrorist.
He found that those who took the role of bad guy often felt guilt over the virtual bloodshed they committed and exhibited greater moral sensitivity than those who played as soldiers.
"Video games are these important moral sandboxes," he said. "They allow us to practice moral decision-making we can’t do in the real world. Games can be this really important tool for teaching people what the right decisions might be. Maybe one way to do that is showing what the consequences of wrong decisions would be."
Gaming has long been identified as a factor in worsening child obesity, but research that scholar Chennan Liu performed at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign suggests the pastime might have gotten a bad rap.
Youth survey data she examined found that those who play video games for an average of three to six hours a day were healthier than those who played less.
Liu, now a professor of social work at Renmin University of China, said the unexpected result calls for further study. But she guessed that gaming might burn more calories than watching TV, or that kids gripping a controller are less inclined to pick up a snack.
That theory made sense to Dan Wojtowicz, 18, a student at Andrew High School in suburban Tinley Park, Illinois, who spends up to seven hours a day on "Starcraft II," "League of Legends" and other games.
"When I go on long gaming streaks, many times I don’t feel the need to eat as much, even though it takes a lot of my energy," he said.
The most intriguing studies might be coming from neuroscientists, who are using MRIs and other high-tech devices to learn how gaming affects the brain.
Simone Kuhn, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, has found that the prefrontal cortex actually grows thicker and gray matter more voluminous in people who play games as humble as "Super Mario 64," changes that could improve memory and navigational ability.
Bavelier has focused on cognitive performance, finding that first-person shooters can help improve a person’s vision and ability to pay attention.
How that might translate into real-world benefits is still unclear, but Bavelier noted that young gamers have been shown to make superior laparoscopic surgeons, performing faster and making fewer errors than more experienced peers.
Not everyone is sold on the positive findings coming from recent gaming research. Joseph Bisoglio, who has studied the subject at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, said one big problem is that studies generally don’t compare gaming with other activities that stimulate the brain, such as learning to speak another language or practicing a musical instrument.
So while gaming might improve cognitive performance, other activities could produce even more profound effects.
By John Keilman, Chicago Tribune
Designing a Tween bedroom is a balancing act
Decorating a baby’s room is all about what mom and dad want. But decorating a bedroom for a “tween-age” child is more complicated.
It’s a great place to give growing adolescents some creative freedom. But will they reject at age 12 the color palette and furniture they begged for when they were 10?
Kids grow up fast enough that parents might not want to rush the process by removing all whimsy from their rooms. But we also don’t want to redecorate each time our kids get just a bit more mature. So we’re left walking the line between playful and Mom-I-can’t-believe-you-bought-me-this-furniture.
Designers Michelle Workman of Michelle Workman Interiors, Brian Patrick Flynn or Flynnside Out Productions and Betsy Burnham of Burnham Design offer advice on designing a tween bedroom that has ample storage, homework space and enough cool style to keep kids happy year after year.
Kids love color, but it’s practical to start with a neutral base. Flynn suggests going all-white on walls and ceiling but adding texture.
“I use 1-inch-by-10-inch pine planks on the walls and install it horizontally,” he says, “then have it all whitewashed or painted solidly. This brings architecture to the room and also creates a linear backdrop for showcasing favorite things.”
Workman recently designed a bedroom for a 10-year-old boy with gray walls. “Gray allows you to layer either cool or warm colors on top,” she says.
She added a navy leather sofa (“a pullout for sleepovers,” she says, “and leather only gets better with age”), plus a rug, throw pillows, an ottoman and chairs in shades of orange and turquoise. The result: playful but not immature.
Another approach: “Red, white and blue has become a modern classic for boys and girls,” Flynn says.
“For a masculine touch, I’m a fan of sticking with rich navy and fire-engine red. Girl spaces are an excellent fit for more muted blues such as robin’s egg or sea foam, and more poppy shades of red such as cherry,” he says.
What if your kids have their hearts set on colors you think won’t work?
Respect their input, Burnham says, but adjust the shades as necessary: “It’s your house, too. If you don’t want a school-bus-yellow wall, what can you live with? Maybe a dijon, or maybe the school-bus yellow is his bedside lamp.”
Toys, trophies, books, papers and a whole lot of electronics: Kids have an awful lot of stuff.
Burnham suggests choosing a wall “that can accommodate 18 inches of depth or 22 inches of depth,” and have built-in cabinets and shelves installed.
“Built-in cabinetry is so very handy in a tween room,” agrees Workman. It allows “an easy transition to a teenage space” because you’re not dealing with furniture that the child might no longer like.
For walls, “tweens and teens tend to favor bold patterns, and find wallpaper cool due to its vintage, retro appeal,” Flynn says.
“If wallpaper is too much of a commitment,” he adds, “consider a graphic treatment on the walls with paint. Stripes are classic and gender-neutral, plus they’re not too difficult to paint.”
“Tweens are still finding themselves, so it’s tricky to decorate their rooms with one particular style,” Flynn says.
His preferred style for tweens? “Eclectic.”
Workman agrees that vintage pieces — especially those already banged-up and scratched to perfection — are perfect for older kids’ bedrooms.
Vintage chairs can be recovered in fresh fabrics, and antique furniture can shine with a new coat of glossy paint.
To tie disparate finds together, keep the color scheme consistent. And to protect the tops of desks, dressers and tables, Burnham advises having a piece of glass cut to cover them.
“I am a real believer in creating a kids/tween/teen room that utilizes classic ‘adult’ fabrics and furnishings,” Workman says.
By Melissa Rayworth, Associated Press