Only 3% of gamers are loners and never play with others, according to an Interactive Australia report by Bond University. Many games involve multi-person play, with players either in the same room or connected online.
And, says Dr Lawrence Kutner, director of the Harvard Medical School’s Centre for Mental Health and Media and co-author of Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games and What Parents Can Do, games are a topic of conversation that allow kids to build relationships with their peers.
‘Boys and girls view game playing as a social activity, not an isolating one,’ he said.
‘For boys, game strategy is a topic of conversation.
‘If you don’t play, you’re left out of that ubiquitous conversation.’
1. Better vision
Video games can give you an eye for detail.
Researchers from the University of Rochester found people who spent 30 hours training on action games over a month spotted targets on a cluttered screen 80% of the time; non-gamers managed this only 30% of the time. Here are some other ways to improve your visual and mental skills.
Allstate, a US insurer currently trialling video games for older drivers, has found that game software can improve visual skills important for safe driving. National Institutes of Health studies have shown the software reduces crash risk by up to 50%.
2. Brain booster
No longer labelled simply as evil time-wasters, video games are now considered a fast-track to a sharper mind.
When researchers from Iowa State University studied a group of laparoscopic surgeons, they found those who played video games three or more hours a week were 27% faster and made 37% fewer errors.
The surgeons were not playing games specifically designed for them, according to Dr Douglas Gentile, one of the study’s authors.
‘They were whatever off-the-shelf games they had played in the past,’ he said.
‘Conscious attention is required for the experience of pain,’ says Professor David Patterson of the University of Washington’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine.
‘Virtual-reality games are unusually attention-grabbing, leaving less attention to process incoming pain signals,’ he said.
SnowWorld is the first custom-designed virtual reality game for burns patients.
Patients who play it while having dressings changed report a 40-50% reduction in pain.
New research from the University of Zaragoza in Spain shows that the risk of being overweight increases with every hour teens spend on virtual play.
Yet games may also be part of the solution.
A study from the University of Hong Kong found playing games in which players mimic the actions involved in sports are a good way of keeping fit.
Players can use about the same energy as they would on a brisk walk.
5. Nintendo thumb
Hours of repeated movements can damage tendons and nerves in the thumbs.
Physiotherapists are also alarmed by what slouching is doing to young spines.
‘Most children sit on the floor playing games, or on their beds, or in chairs that are generally too big for them,’ says physiotherapist Wendy Emberson.
‘If they were at work, health and safety officers would have a field day,’ she said. Here are some tips to stay grounded in a digital world.
‘Recent research on 7000 online gamers found 12% experienced ‘addictive’ signs of playing,’ says Professor Mark Griffiths, director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University.
‘In online gaming, there is no end to the game and there is the potential to play endlessly,’ he said.
Studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia have found violent games diminish players’ brain responses to images of real-life violence.
And when players were given the chance to ‘punish’ a fake opponent, those who’d recorded the lowest brain responses were most brutal.
But does this relate to real-life aggression? The few studies in this area usually base their measure on ‘thoughts’, says Jonathan Freedman from the University of Toronto.
‘In some studies, if the person playing a violent game has more thoughts of aggression, this is considered an indication that violent games cause aggression.’
Freedman says this is a flimsy link.
‘After watching a war movie, you probably have thoughts of war, but no-one would suggest you are more likely to wage war.’
Larry Kutner believes it’s time to stop thinking of gamers as cyber-junkies and appreciate their skills.
‘A 14-year-old who practises the piano several hours a day is considered a dedicated musician. A 15-year-old who spends every afternoon on basketball is considered a burgeoning athlete. But a teen who spends hours mastering the intricacies of a sophisticated video game may be seen as maladjusted. It makes no sense.’
‘Games are natural teachers,’ says Douglas Gentile, director of the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University.
‘What they teach depends on their content. If they have violent content, players will learn.’
Others, however, say game violence rarely spills over into the real world. A University of Melbourne study on game violence found only a very small number of children who were predisposed to violence showed any change in behaviour.
‘The majority did not increase in aggression at all and we’re not the first people to find that,’ says study leader Grant Devilly. In fact, games may be a way of letting off steam.
Says Kutner, researchers have found most people feel more relaxed after a game-playing session.
Overlooked in much of the debate is the fact that game playing is now an adult business. The average age of a gamer is 30, and likely to reach 42 by 2014. 75% of games sold are rated either G or PG – ie, puzzle games, card games, racing games and adventure games.
Some 80% of parents in games households join their kids in virtual play and experts say this is the best way to understand the medium, the culture and a game’s content.
‘Play some of the games with your children,’ says Kutner.
‘You’ll learn a lot. You’ll also give your kids a chance to reverse their normal relationship with you; they become the experts while you’re the awkward novice.’ (Here’s some basic computer lingo to get you started.)