Even as videogames come under scrutiny for potential harmful impacts, researchers and developers are touting digital games for positive effects on health, learning and other social goals.
The immersive power of games is being used to encourage kids to develop healthy eating, help seniors maintain brain functions and even to tackle problems like poverty and climate change.
Most Americans in a recent Harris online survey said they see a link between videogames and violent behavior.
And Vice President Joe Biden, who convened a White House meeting after the Sandy Hook school massacre that saw a man gun down 20 children and six adults before taking his own life, has said more research is needed on how games affect users.
But many researchers say there is little evidence that playing games can cause users to become violent, and point to numerous positive impacts.
“Games can have a positive impact, particularly with psychological functions,” said Jason Allaire of North Carolina State University’s Gains Through Gaming Lab.
“We focus on cognition and learning, trying to understand the exact mechanisms, such as the impact on reaction time and memory.”
Allaire led a recent study that found seniors who played digital games showed higher levels of emotional well-being than non-players.
Although the research did not offer a clear cause and effect, Allaire expressed confidence that the research would eventually find such a relationship.
Digital games “get a bad rap because often they are played to excess” but blaming games for societal ills is “simplistic,” Allaire said.
Still, he said researchers are reviewing their thinking following a spate of shootings.
“If I say as a scientist I think games can have a positive effect, it would be hypocritical to say that they cannot have a negative impact,” Allaire said.
But he argued that “there is no evidence to show that playing a violent videogame can cause you to engage in violent behaviors.”
Big game companies and independent developers have created many games aimed at positive skills and habits.
Jive Health, a startup founded by Northwestern University student Dennis Ai, produced a mobile game that encourages children to eat more fruits and vegetables, with the goal of curbing childhood obesity.
In the game, kids must find apples or other fruits for their animal characters and take a picture of real-life foods to advance to the next level.
“Kids, they really do enjoy playing the game, it’s looking very promising,” said Ai, whose team won the Innovation Challenge prize sponsored by the nonprofit Partnership for a Healthier America.
“You can’t teach kids healthy eating habits by just preaching to them.”
Even the oft-criticized “shooter games” can have an upside: a University of Toronto study showed that playing shooting or driving videogames, even for a short time, improves the ability to search for a hidden target.
Researcher Ian Spence said these visual skills can be useful.
“It’s necessary for baggage screening, reading X-rays or MRIs, interpreting satellite images, defeating camouflage or even just locating a friend’s face in a crowd,” he said.
Boston Children’s Hospital researchers reported that a game can help children with anger problems regulate their emotions.
The game involves shooting at enemy spaceships while avoiding shooting at friendly ones.
When their heart rate goes above a certain level, players lose their ability to shoot, teaching them skills to keep calm, according to a study published in the journal Adolescent Psychiatry.
Another game, “Darfur is Dying,” was created by University of Southern California students to raise awareness about the region’s humanitarian crisis.
And a 2004 study showed that surgeons who played videogames made fewer errors, possibly helped by learning focus and coordination.
So-called serious games experts are stepping up their efforts to harness the power of games. The topic is likely to be part of the discussion at the Game Developers Conference this month in San Francisco.
Academic experts gathered last year to discuss the topic in a session organized by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
“There are so many ways games can be used to have this kind of an impact, and clearly one of the big ways is awareness learning,” said Carrie Heeter, of the University of Michigan’s Games for Entertainment and Learning Lab.
Heeter, one of the participants at the White House meeting, said games in her lab help teach the importance of sanitation, or help learn about medical disorders or pollution. But there are often unintended results.
“We have a student from China who was motivated to learn English by playing ‘Tomb Raider,’” she said.
Northeastern University professor Magy Seif el-Nasr has been working on research about the impact of games.
While some people play for a sense of reward, others play to connect with friends.
“Some games can promote a lot of thinking,” which can be especially important for older adults, said Seif el-Nasr. “This kind of problem-solving activity promotes better cognition and better memory over time.”
[Playing video game via Shutterstock]