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Q & A from the I-Brain Conference/Part 1:Video Games

There were several excellent lectures and workshops at the Learning and the Brain Conference- The I-Brain.  The presenters were from Stanford, Cal-Berkeley, Harvard and other cutting edge institutions studying the state of the human brain as it interfaces with the latest technology.  Although much of the conference was geared toward the student brain in the age of information, the principles apply to anyone who uses technology.  Rather than try to summarize everything that was presented, I will answer the questions I had leading into the conference and what I learned.

1. Are video games good or bad for the brain?

There are many angles to this question, and to give credit to the Learning and the Brain Society, an even-handed perspective was presented.   In some ways, video games are good for the brain especially if they encourage problem solving and visual-spatial challenges.  Processing speed and reaction times can be positively affected as well.  The best scenario is if the gamer is engaged with other gamers in communities where they are discussing the games and possibly solving problems together.

There were many beneficial games that were listed including The Sims, Waste of  Space (a physics videogame), and even the venerable World of WarCraft.  One presenter stated that she has organized a WWC club at school where the gamers play, discuss strategies, and learn the social skills of group interaction.   Another presenter stated that “schools should abandon yearly standardized tests in favor of the ongoing progress model used by videogame developers.  As you master a level, you move on.”

There are several downsides to video games too.  First and foremost is that they are potentially addicting, especially in susceptible individuals.  Much of gaming involves dopamine reinforcement so individuals who tend to be dopamine driven might become addicted.  There are several signs of withdrawal that are typical of addiction including moodiness when the stimuli are withheld, neglect of basic needs (such as eating, sleeping, and human interaction) in order to keep interfacing with the addicting force, and requirements for more of the stimulus in order to achieve satisfaction.   Video games show the capacity for addictive behavior.  One presenter even described a video game rehabilitation program in China where addicted clients go cold turkey to break the addiction. Those with ADHD tendencies are particularly at risk.

Another drawback is that there are several critical time periods in human development where individuals learn emotional intelligence via interaction with real human faces, emotional regulation, and empathy.  One of the skills that will be required of the 21st century mind will be the capacity for empathy as the world becomes smaller.  These opportunities to develop capacities that make us human are potentially at risk in the absence of the opportunity to develop them.

Yet another drawback to videogames is that it if you are plugged into a videogame, you are not getting any exercise. Statistics on rising childhood obseity were given.  In addition, our brains were wired to benefit from physical exercise.  The school system that leads the world in science, math and other measures of critical thinking is Finland.  It should be no suprise that every 45 minute class period is followed by a 15 minute period of compulsory exercise.  Either you go to the gym and do a few exercises or you go outside and throw snowballs!  More on exercise and the brain later…

An additional drawback of videogames is that it reduces freeform creativity.  When interacting with a videogame, you are confined to respond to an algorithm.  There is something human and creative to figuring out how to amuse oneself with whatever is available, perhaps creating a game that is completely unique.  A child’s brain is endlessly capable of unique play schemes.

Bottom line and Suggested Guidelines:

1. Not all videogames are bad.  It is important to remember that they are potentially addicting, and they can create conditions where an individual is out of balance.  If an individual becomes moody, does not address physical and social needs, then he needs to cut back or stop altogether.

2. Since there are critical developmental stages, especially for social development from age 0-12 years, videogame use should be limited.  Some studies suggest there should be no screen time for children under 2.  The general rule is less is more, especially for the very young.

3. Negotiate how long someone can spend on a videogame.  Involving the child in the process rather than merely setting a rule will help him/her understand his own brain and his own capacity to be moderate overuse.

4. Give a wind down time so that a child can begin to disengage with the game.  The idea of a “cool down” might need to be coached.

5. If you have agreed to let the child play the videogame, allow them to play in peace.  Make that part of the agreement.   You will allow uninterrupted gaming if they stop, wind down, and agree to do something else when the time is up.

Videogames and technology will always be available.  The genie is out of the bottle and there is no stuffing him back in.   There is no black or white verdict on whether vdeogames are good or bad.  What is clear is that balance is required.  Remember the days when we had to be forced to come back home or inside after a day of play?  Now that there is plenty to do inside, it is critical to counterbalance this reality with encouragement to go outside for fresh air, exercise, and social interaction with friends absent any technology to interfere.

Next up: The I-Brain,Multi-tasking and Memory

Time to go for a walk!

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