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December 8, 2009

Can video games actually be - *gasp* - good for you?

Many thanks to @jradoff for posting this interesting article, "Six Wonderful Things About Games."  So many people have a negative opinion on video games.  They're too violent; they'll warp kids' minds; they make them antisocial.  Granted, many games are being made that are rated "M for Mature" (though I was playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 online the other night and happened upon a father and his young son playing, which was kind of interesting), but some of the complaints about games have been about adults as well.  If there's a shooting anywhere, inevitably video games are blamed, rather than the psychosis that the person responsible for the atrocity already has in his (and they always seem to be male) mind.

So how about some positive views about gaming?  Can gaming actually be beneficial for both kids and adults?  In regards to that question, I quite agree with Jon.  They certainly can be.

"Satirical side swipes aside, perhaps you’re reading this because you’re bewildered over this new form of entertainment yourself; or maybe you are someone who enjoys games and would like to explain some of their benefits—beyond entertainment—to a parent, a teacher, a friend or even a reader of the Daily Mail/avid viewer of Fox News. The purpose of this article is to inform you about some of things that are wonderful about games."

Then Jon goes on to list six very good things about games.  I'll take them point by point.  You should certainly read the whole article, for Jon's reasoning behind the points.  He backs them up quite well.

1) Games can make you smarter

I do know that games can certainly open your eyes to new ways of looking at things, depending on what types of games you're playing.  As for kids, experience is the best teacher, and playing games can allow kids to explore different ways of solving problems.  Even some first-person shooters have puzzles that you have to figure out.  Some of the best games force you to use your brain, and using it is the best way to exercise it.

2) Games can excite people for high-paying careers

Jon makes some good points in this one, though I'm not as high on this one as he is.  It can certainly inspire kids and young adults to get into the programming business, whether it's games or other software, and that's quite lucrative.  And I have seen the studies that show the benefits of hand-eye coordination that gamers develop.  I sincerely hope that Jon (and Dr. Rosser, whose study he cites) are correct about gaming making kids interested in math/science careers.

3) Games inspire tangential learning

Jon brings up an interesting World of Warcraft example of this that I wouldn't have ever thought of.  Who would have thought that players of MMOs (that's "Massively Multiplayer Online" games, for those of you who don't know) would use math so often?  I'm wondering what percentage of those players are actually doing things like that, though (the site is called "elitestjerks", after all).  However, the other example he uses is quite logical and I'm surprised more game defenders don't make use of it.  So many games take place in a historical setting and I'm sure a fair number of players take an interest in that setting and desire to learn more about it.

One example Jon doesn't use, but which I think is a perfect one, is Assassin's Creed.  The first game takes place during the Crusades and gives a little history as your assassin character moves from city to city and faction to faction.  I am a history buff and already know a fair bit about the Crusades, but even I was inspired to learn more.  The sequel takes place in Renaissance Italy, where you meet and interact with Leonardo Da Vinci among other historical figures and situations.  I can see that inspiring some people to learn more about Italian and Renaissance history as well.

Anytime you get exposed to something new, it's very likely that you'll want to learn even more about it.  That's the benefit of games like these.

4) Games can enhance creativity

So many current games are actually encouraging creativity (Jon cites Little Big Planet and Spore, but I'd also cite The Sims), but even games that don't actively encourage it can still engage the part of your brain that will spark creativity.  Jon uses some excellent examples in his piece, so I'll leave that to him (yes, seriously, go read the article!)

5) Games can foster advanced social skills

I think Jon's point about multiplayer games mostly only applies to MMO games, judging by what I've seen on Xbox Live.  Yes, some groups of friends do go gaming online together and they can actually coordinate their playing (and they usually kick ass when they're playing "out in the wild" against random other teams, because those teams are never organized), but mostly all of the chatter is either bickering back and forth, slamming each other or the other team, and generally obnoxious enough that most sane people mute them.

That being said, I found this intriguing:

"Furthermore, the study found that teens who are exposed to civics within games (e.g., city-simulators like SimCity, or running a guild/clan in other games) are more likely than other teens to be interested in political and civics activities."

That can only be beneficial to our society.

6) Games could help end war

This one is a little too far out there, even for me.  While I understand Jon's basic premise, I think it's kind of a "pie in the sky" dream.

"Unlike any other medium, games gets different people from different countries, political views and religions all playing together. Not because they are elite; not because they’re spectators, but because you must work together to solve problems.

I’m convinced that the more we play together, the more we’ll learn to live with each other. It’s something I’ve spoken about in the past:"

I will believe this has even a chance of happening when Barack Obama is regularly kicking Putin's ass in Halo 3 and the USA isn't getting nuked in retaliation.  I sincerely hope that Jon is right, and that this will eventually happen.  But I won't hold my breath.

Ultimately, Jon's right about one thing, though.  The positive stories about video games do need to get out there.  We can't let the bad stories and misleading information dominate the conversation in our society.  Yes, bad things need to be acknowledged.  Some people can get too addicted to gaming and it can lead to some very expensive habits in both time and money (one reason I don't play MMOs is because I know myself well enough to know that I will get sucked in and other things will get sacrificed on the altar of whatever game I'm playing).

But too many people ignore the benefits of gaming, and I hope Jon's aim pays off.  We should be talking more about this.  You should go read his article, if you haven't already (have I badgered you enough yet?  I'll even link the article here again so that you don't have to scroll to the top).  And if you're a game player, take his advice and start up this conversation with your friends/family/whatever.

It would be a great help to all of us other gamers.


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