Are games good or bad for you?

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There’s a large body of research on games and attention, supporting these general conclusions. Outside academia, both Dr Gazzaley and Dr Bavelier have given talks at TED events (here’s hers and his), contributing to a representation of ‘games’ as beneficial brain trainers that will improve society and make us happier (for a sample, have a look at the rest of the TED site, or search for news about games and education). This is less depressing than reading the headlines on games and violence. But it’s just as simplistic.

What’s at issue here is not the imagined threat to our youth or the untapped potential for social good that exists in video games. It’s the discussion of ‘games’ as a homogeneous form. Sweeping generalisations about ‘games’ make it impossible to have a proper discussion about their potential for harm or for good, and lead to the sort of contradictory media representations that portray games simultaneously as a danger to our young and the future of our education system. What would we say if we could step outside this two-dimensional world? Here are my final thoughts. Leave a comment if you’ve got more to add!

It’s clear there are neurological effects from playing games. What these are, exactly, depends on the type of game being played and the person playing it. More importantly for the rest of us, these effects are small, and limited to basic neurological processes. This doesn’t tell us anything about the effects of games on social processes, like learning well or developing socially-responsible behaviour. How does improved object-tracking affect a learners’ capacity for meta-cognition, or empathy?

For developers of learning games, there are two key take-home points. First, there’s evidence that games can have an effect on our minds. (This is a good thing: it’s what we want to happen, after all). Second, neither the media or neuroscience are much help to people concerned with what happens at a social level – classrooms and communities.

So while it’s always nice to read about the positive impact games can have on basic cognitive tasks, and it’s important to be aware of the potential for harmful effects of violent games on vulnerable groups, to build an understanding of what works for learning we have to carry on working closely with educators and learners to generate data on what happens in the real world – not the lab. And remember not to take any headline about games too seriously.

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