As a geek and as a parent, I have a hard time reconciling my love of video games with my need to unplug my family from electronic entertainment sources. The pediatricians tell us that too much video gaming is bad for our children, but my son learned to read with the explicit intention of reading the text in Super Paper Mario. His goal is to become a distinguished enough reader to effectively play World of Warcraft (what would you expect from a son of a member of Technologia?). I will openly admit that I am guilty of encouraging his reasoning. But while I encourage his efforts toward literacy, I do work hard to limit the amount of video gaming (and television) that goes on in our home.

I think this is something that all video gamer geeks can relate to because society often stereotypes gamers as Eric Cartman-esque (if you haven’t seen the South Park episode where Cartman plays World of Warcraft, it’s worth watching). But not all stereotypes about geeks are bad. For instance, geeks are often stereotyped as an intelligent group. Turns out, this might be accurate.

Video games’ effects on the brain

New research conducted by a team of leading neuroscientists shows that playing video games actually improves brain function and adds to brain mass. Here are more details about the study.

In 1992, neuroscientist Richard Haier, then working with the University of California, Irvine, conducted a study of how playing video games effects the brain. That study used Tetris, a video game based on geometric concepts. In the 1992 study, Haier found that during the first several hours of exposure to Tetris, the amount of glucose in the brain soars. The brain uses this glucose for energy, creating a sort of sugar high. However, Haier also found that after the first several hours of Tetris playing, glucose levels in the brain notably decrease. At this point, the brain is able to complete more complex problems while using less energy. In effect, the brain physically learns and adapts.

The company that sells Tetris, Blue Planet Software, learned about the 1992 study and hired Haier as a consultant. When Haier put together a team of leading neuroscientists, including Leonard Leyba, Sherif Karama, and Rex Jung, and wanted to continue the research, Blue Planet Software was happy to fund the project, though the software company remained hands-off.

The new study, published September 1, 2009 in BMC Research Notes, furthers Haier’s previous work. The researchers used Tetris as the video game component again and had adolescent females be study participants. 15 test subjects played Tetris for about 90 minutes each week for three months, while the 11 control subjects were asked to avoid playing video games entirely. MRI tests show that the cerebral cortex of the subjects who played Tetris grew thicker and gained neurons in cortex areas that handle sensory information and complex movement planning. Overall, the test subjects showed marked increase in critical thinking and language abilities.

So, it turns out that there is quite a lot of truth behind the intelligent geek stereotype. Now we just need somebody to prove that all video games have the same benefits as Tetris. Surely World of Warcraft can be proven to increase brain function.

What about your gaming vs. real-world activities?

At what point do you turn off the video games and go out in the real world to get your experience? How do you set limits, and do you consider experts’ recommendations and societal stereotypes when doing so?

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