The Verdict on Video Games: Good for your Health?
Video games are perhaps the most hotly debated entertainment medium of the last century. Often accused of causing violence, reclusiveness, degeneracy and hopeless attention spans in children and young adults, video games tend to get a bad rap.
Too much of anything can be a bad thing. But scientists are continually proving that video games are like red wine—in healthy moderation, they can benefit the mind and body. Here, in defense of video games, is a sampling of some of those scientific findings:
Video games teach children to read
Anyone who grew up playing text-heavy role-playing games like Pokemon or Final Fantasy can probably tell you that much of their childhood reading was done on a Gameboy Advance screen. Video games can be an invaluable learning resource for children—as a study on a group of children in Sweden shows, it is even possible to pick up a new language by communicating with other players in online games.
Research confirms that video games can also help children with dyslexia, a learning disability that causes affected children to have great difficulty reading and responding to verbal stimuli. The combination of spoken dialogue and corresponding text scrolling on the screen can be helpful for dyslexic kids, but it's not just wordy RPGs that help kids overcome dyslexia. In a study published by the US National Library of Medicine, children who played 80 minutes of action video games per day for nine days showed identical reading speed improvements to children who underwent a traditional reading development therapy program for one year.
The exact cause of dyslexia remains unknown, so it is not clear why action games are so effective in helping children overcome it. Scientists guess that the rapidly changing stimuli in action games contribute to increased attention, which is thought to be linked to reading ability.
Video games improve eyesight
Too much screen time can lead to headaches and tired, dry eyes. Parents corroborate this by limiting their children's game-time to weekends only, or maybe an hour per day. This isn't unreasonable—after all, doing anything for hours upon hours on end with no breaks for fresh air can be unhealthy.
But for adults with impaired vision from amblyopia (known as lazy eye,) video games can be a godsend. Lazy eye is believed to only be treatable in a critical period between ages 2 and 8, when children's eyes are still developing. The traditional treatment for lazy eye is occlusion therapy or covering the patient's “good eye” with a patch to force the weaker eye to improve. The therapy becomes increasingly difficult with age, as brain plasticity decreases, and is generally unsuccessful after early childhood.
Until recently, there was no known successful treatment for amblyopia in adults. But scientists have found that video games just might be the antidote for this common vision impairment.
A 2011 study at the University of California published results confirming that action shooter games like Halo and Call of Duty can begin to reverse lazy eye after just 40 hours of playtime spread over the course of a month. Just a couple hours of gaming per day improved participants' vision by 1.5 lines on the standard optometrists' letter chart. Children who undergo occlusion therapy typically only see similar results after wearing a patch for 120 hours or more.
Research on whether video games can be a long-term amblyopia treatment is still developing. In 2016, JAMA Ophthalmology extended video game therapy to children with lazy eye in a study that proved iPad games to be twice as effective at vision improvement as patch treatment after a two week period.
Seasoned action gamers also tend to be better than non-gamers at discerning small details and different shades of gray. This skill, called “contrast sensitivity,” makes gamers less prone to car accidents at night or in foggy weather, when oncoming cars become harder to distinguish from a dark background.
Video games slow or reverse brain aging
Video games are simply not just for kids anymore. The average age of a gamer today is 31 years old, and there are more gamers in their 30s and 40s and above than there are in either the under 18 or 18-35 groups.
Gamers over 50 might be reaping one of the best benefits from video games and skill-based casino games: they slow the natural cognitive decline of the aging brain. After the brain's abilities peak around age 20, it experiences a gradual loss of memory, spatial abilities, reflexes, problem-solving and reasoning that only gets worse over time. Sudoku and word puzzles are popular among older adults for this very reason. If you don't use it, you lose it. But it's time to tell grandma to throw out her antiquated word search books: science proves that video games are much more effective at jogging the brain muscles.
A study from the University of Iowa reports that a group of adults over 50 scored much higher on cognitive tests after playing 10 hours of a video game than a similar group that did crossword puzzles instead. The researchers estimate that the gaming group reversed the aging of their brains by as much as three or four years in just a few hours of training.