Games: The Moulders of Minds?

Due to their links with American high-school massacres, pre-meditated murder cases and a recent robbery that culminated in the theft of the victim’s copy of the best-selling Grand Theft Auto: V, video games have always attracted a magnitude of bad press. Yet, in some cases, the attributing of violent atrocities to aggressive and graphic console titles are unfounded and perhaps a little unfair. Politicians, pressure groups and parents are all guilty of mercilessly blaming the risqué features and controversial themes of these games for the occurrences of such tragedies and the apparent manipulation of pure minds into committing acts of murder and crime. Yet, a recent study and experiment conducted by Texas A&M University, which involved putting 103 participants through an initial stress-inducing ‘frustration task’ before ascribing them each a different type of game to play, a variation of either a ‘non violent’, ‘violent’ Good vs Evil or ‘violent’ from the perspective of the ‘bad guy’ title, did much to disprove this finger-pointing. The results recouped suggested that the ‘violent’ sort of video games actually reduced the tension, stress and depression experienced by an individual: a destroyer, rather than a stimulant, of violent tendencies.

Official US governmental figures support this finding, as violence perpetrated by young people is at its statistical lowest in 40 years. Whilst this is not to suggest that the accessibility of video games is accountable for the decrease in crimes committed, it does undermine the notion that these genres of game always inspire dangerous and psychotic behaviour. Indeed, noted academic, researcher and criminal psychology expert, Christopher J. Ferguson, puts this discovery succinctly and sharply, viewing the widespread assumptions that motivate whole communities to demonise video games as a ‘classic error of using a high-base-rate (very common) behaviour to explain a low-base-rate (rare) behaviour.’ That is to say, using Ferguson’s example, that just because 93% of American male children have played Street Fighter II that this has clearly not created an army of aggressive individuals and should not be held accountable for the despicable actions of an overwhelmingly small majority. It merely seems that violent video games are the newest scapegoat on which society can pin abhorrent crimes, the latest recipient of a collective hatred in a long line of culprits, following on from controversial works of art, literature and music, in generating frantic moral panics.

With this evidence in mind, it is fitting to turn the focus to the video and mobile games that are being used specifically to affect the brain in a positive way and seek to rectify the negative publicity that permeates the gaming industry. Dr James Rosser, a general surgeon based at Florida Hospital is a proponent of utilising video games to improve the performances of surgeons and doctors during operations. His vision, which began in 2001 and is still very much in action today, comprised of encouraging surgeons to spend a maximum of 6 minutes before theatre appointments, playing the Nintendo game, Super Monkey Ball 2. As absurd as it sounds, there is method in Rosser’s apparent madness, as in a simulated operation experiment that involved 300 participating medical personnel, where 50% played the Nintendo title beforehand and 50% did not, the unlikely gamers returned some highly positive results.

Rosser’s experiment revealed that the set of game players made 37% fewer errors and were 27% faster in the imitated operation than those who were not subjected to his wacky warm-up. The reasons for these marked improvements probably derive from the need for Super Monkey Ball 2 players to make sharp, precise movements, adopt a multi-tasking approach and demonstrate a steady sleight-of-hand, three factors required for a successful surgeon. As a reported 98,000 patients die from medical errors in the US each year, a larger embracing of this practice may be instrumental in improving surgical competence and saving lives.

In addition to augmenting the mental focus of the surgeon, scientists and researchers are also striving to develop games that slow the onset of cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease and the decline in brain functionality that occurs as a natural part of the human aging process. A recent participant study chaired by Adam Gazzaley at the University of California made use of a specially developed game entitled NeuroRacer to enhance the memory, processing and concentration capacities of its test group of 46 60-85 year old participants. Importantly, a subsequent activity where these capacities were measured against those of a control group unexposed to this game, found that the cognitive skills of these aged NeuroRacer players were sharper, more agile and better functioning than their contemporaries.

Gazzaley attributed this success to the newfound ‘plasticity’ of the human brain and how it can in fact be re-moulded and re-energised by engaging in certain activities regularly. Fittingly, further research has discovered that if gamers play casual problem-solving games, such as Bejewelled or Candy Crush Saga, more frequently than watching television, the quality of short-term cognitive function can be increased. Whilst we are still many years away from implementing a cure for both Alzheimer’s and the inevitable reduction of brain functionality in old age, it is clear that keeping an appointment with a simple instruction-based or IQ-testing game or app can stem the rate at which these can take hold.

As well as video game technology earning a place at the forefront of medical and scientific practice, the gaming phenomenon known as edutainment (a portmanteau of education and entertainment) is establishing a prominent position in the commercial market. Rosetta Stone, the world-renowned provider of language-learning kits has recently taken to iOS to unveil a pair of mobile applications, designed for adults and children and entitled Arcade Academy and Lingo Letter Sound respectively, which encourages the player to use basic Spanish phrases to complete simple gaming tasks. Instead of exposing gamers’ minds to the brutal atmosphere of war, Rosetta Stone are embarking on the task of strengthening the linguistics of the consumer and broadening their mind in a positive sense.

Games may no longer be purely for entertainment as the aforementioned list of practical applications for this technology demonstrates. Despite an abundance of research that invalidates accusations that games are responsible for violence and crime, the new-found trend of doctors, scientists and developers using and producing games that actively try to improve the mental wellbeing of the individual will prove vital in this industry’s attempts to shake the heavy scapegoat tag that weighs down its creativity and freedom and questions the morality of most of the games that it produces.