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Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012 11:36 pm | Updated: 12:07 pm, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

A friend of mine, in his 70s, wants a joy stick for Christmas. He has never played video games but figures he should. Video games increase attention and reaction times, he’s heard on the news.

Is this right? A few years ago, “everybody knew” video games have bad effects, especially on children.

Now researchers are finding that video games have many benefits.

• Gamers of all ages perform better on tests of attention, speed, accuracy and multi-tasking.

Neuroscientist Lauren Sergio of York University examined what parts of the brain are used when playing video games.

Sophisticated gamers, she finds through functional magnetic resonance imaging, use different parts of the brain. They use brain regions specializing in planning, attention and multi-tasking, while non-gamers used different areas of the brain that do not boost these skills.

• Children who spend more time playing video games get higher scores on tests of creativity.

University of Michigan psychologist Linda Jackson studied 491 normal boys and found the more children played computer games, the higher their scores on a standard test of creativity. These children were more able, for example, to give a picture a title and write a story about it or to be given a shape and make an interesting picture.

• Video games can improve mental health.

Children who played video games before surgery experienced lower levels of anxiety, found doctors from New Jersey Medical School. Soldiers in Afghanistan reduced their psychological stress 75 percent by playing video games for three or more hours each day.

Carmen Russoniello, a neuroscientist at East Carolina University, studied the effects of one game (Bejeweled) and found the game elevated mood, relaxed the autonomic nervous system and decreased stress.

• Some games help angry children control their emotions.

It is true that violent video games increase violent thoughts, especially among children already prone to violence. But Boston Children’s Hospital has developed a game called Rage Control to help children regulate their emotions. The children play a shoot-’em-up game aiming at evil space ships. A monitor attached to a finger measures the children’s heart rates. When their heart rate gets too high, players lose their ability to shoot.

Children who played Rage Control not only decreased their anger during the video game but also in real life situations.

• People enjoy playing video games, and happiness in the moment is important.

Surveys asking gamers how they feel when playing video games report many positive emotions. Playing games increases enjoyment, improves engagement with challenging work, offers the opportunity to learn new information and creates stronger relationships with friends.

Gamers had positive emotions while playing these games. The have feelings of accomplishment, pride, emotional closeness to other players, excitement and curiosity, found several studies.

Video games provide many people with the ingredients that they need to enjoy life, writes game psychologist Jane McConigal. Game playing creates hope of success, makes friends and improves the ability to set goals.

Video games can have negative effects as well, especially on children who play too much.

Excessive play of video games leads to poorer grades and lower scores on tests of reading and writing. Douglas Gentle, a psychologist at Iowa State University, brought together research on video gaming, conducted on 130,296 research participants, and found that violent game play does stimulate aggressive behavior. But his review of research on gaming found many positive effects too. 

Video games, Gentle concludes, can be harnessed both for good or for evil.

I admire my friend in his 70s who wants to take up video games, and I figure I should follow suit. But the truth is I just don’t enjoy them. For me, using video games to increase my attention and reaction time would be like taking a disagreeable medicine.

The bottom line is that parents this Christmas shouldn’t knock video games off their Christmas lists. Video games can be good for you. It’s best if your Christmas list includes seniors.

Judith Kleinfeld, a longtime columnist for the Daily News-Miner, holds a doctorate from Harvard and is a psychology professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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