from the building-blocks dept
If you’re of a certain age, you will remember the derision with which video games as an entertainment industry were met some time ago. While many of the claims about gaming encountered during that time, such as the impact of violent games on young minds or the assured claims that playing games would rot the brains of young people who played them, please understand how much louder that silliness was shouted years back. I can personally recall my own father insisting that if I played video games, I would end up having oatmeal for brains. Good one, Dad, except I played them anyway and now I’m a real-life grown-up with a family and two jobs and a house and all that jazz. Jazz, of course, being a previous receptacle for many of these same claims, but I digress.
Less vociferous have been those on the other side of the “video games will rot your brain” position, but reverse claims do exist. Some have posited that there could actually be benefits to playing video games, from instilling in players a baseline sense of achievement, improving cognitive ability, or preparing them to be better at business than they would be otherwise. And now a recent study suggests that simple video games may in fact be useful therapeutically for those who have suffered trauma or addiction.
Researchers report that Tetris—a classic game that takes hold of spatial and visual systems in the brain as players align irregular polygons—seems to jumble the mind’s ability to process and store fresh traumatic memories. Those improperly preserved memories are subsequently less likely to resurface as intrusive, distressing flashbacks, which can contribute to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, complicated grief, and other mental health issues. For those struggling with cravings or addiction, other research has found that Tetris’ mental grasp can also diminish the intensity of hankerings and help game players fight off real-life dependencies.
Though the conclusions are based on small studies in need of repeating and further investigation, one thing is clear: the potential video-game therapy has scant side-effects and potential harms. Twenty-minutes of Tetris is just good fun, if nothing else.
As the article states, more research needs to be done before the American Medical Association begins prescribing Tetris to heroin addicts and victims of car accidents, but the limited studies show rather striking results. In the UK, 71 real-world patients who had been in traumatic vehicle accidents were asked to play 20 minutes of Tetris while at the hospital, while the control group simply logged what would be their normal activity during their stay. Those who played the game reported nearly two-thirds fewer incidents of flashbacks or PTSD. The theory is that playing the game works within the brain to suppress traumatic memory of these incidents, memories that are not useful in a therapeutic sense. When the researchers checked back a month later, the experimental and control groups had similar mental health scores, once the game playing had ceased. Keep in mind we’re talking about 20 minutes of play during the hospital stay.
As for its impact on addiction, the results for playing Tetris were more muted, but still substantial.
In late 2015, a group of English and Australian researchers reported that playing Tetris could dampen cravings for addictive substances, such as nicotine, alcohol, and drugs, as well as other vices, such as food and sex. The study, published in Addictive Behaviors, followed 31 undergraduate volunteers who carried around iPods for a week and filled out surveys seven times a day about their cravings. Fifteen of the participants also got to play three minutes of Tetris after the surveys, then report on their cravings again. When the week was up, the researchers found that playing Tetris consistently reduced craving strength by 13.9 percent—about a fifth. That, the authors explained, could be just enough for people to ignore those cravings and avoid their vice.
The researchers again hypothesized that the game’s ability to seize visual and spatial processing in the brain is key to the health benefits. In this case, addiction and cravings are often driven by visual fantasies of having that drink, drug, or what-have-you, the authors explained.
As already stated, more studies need to be done before drawing any firm conclusions, but it seems clear that despite all the shouting about the horror of playing video games and its impact on the brain, the flipside to that might actually be true. And then, finally, perhaps the world can move on to its next moral panic.