Health News: When Video Games Are Good for You

Wait, video games are good for you? The surprising ways certain types of video games can help kids, surgeons, war vets, and more.

By Lauren Gelman

Good for: Children with dyslexia

Kids with the reading disability performed better on tests of reading speed and accuracy after they played a certain action-oriented video game (Wii’s Rayman Raving Rabbids) compared to another group of dyslexic children who played a video game that didn’t involve action, according to a recent Italian study published in the journal Current Biology.

Why: The video games may train the brain to focus and pay more close attention, study co-author Andrea Facoetti, an assistant professor with the Developmental & Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at the University of Padua, told HealthDay News. While the study's authors do not suggest all kids can play any game and expect improvements, they do think that games could help professionals working with dyslexic students.

Good for: Couch potatoes

“Exergames” are no substitute for a real gym sweat session, but they may help sedentary people incorporate more activity into their day, found a 2012 Michigan State University review of 41 studies on active video games.

Why: “For those not engaging in real-life exercise, this may be a good step toward this,” Wei Peng, PhD, an assistant professor of telecommunication, information studies and media, said in a university press release. “Eventually the goal is to help them get somewhat active and maybe move to real-life exercise.”

Good for: Stroke patients

Between 55 and 75 percent of stroke survivors experience mobility problems in their arms, and conventional physical therapy only helps so much. Now, some experts believe that playing certain video games on Wii and Playstation should be part of that healing process. In one review of 12 studies published in 2011 in the journal Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association, patients who played such games were up to five times more likely to experience arm motor function improvements compared with patients who got only traditional therapy.

Why: “Recovery of motor skill depends on neurological recovery, adaptation, and learning new strategies,“ lead study author Gustavo Saposnik, MD, said in a university press release. “Virtual reality systems drive neuroplasticity and lead to benefits in motor function improvement after stroke.”

Good for: Older adults

Next time the kids (or, grandchildren) are zoned out playing video games, encourage the older generations to pick up a joystick and join in.

Why: When psychology professors at North Carolina State University asked 140 adults age 63 and older whether or how often they played video games, they found that those who did reported higher levels of well-being, and were less likely to be depressed than those who never played.

Good for: Surgeons

Docs, forget country-club tennis. Playing racquet sports on the Wii may help hone surgery skills, especially for minimally invasive surgeries that require the ability to use instruments while looking at a screen instead of watching the actual body in front of you. In an interesting new study from the University of Rome, published in the journal PLOS One, researchers divided surgeons in training into two groups. One was asked to play Nintendo Wii for an hour a day, five days a week (choosing to play Wii Tennis, Wii Table Tennis, and High Altitude Battle) and the other was not.

Why: After a month, reported Atlantic, all of the surgeons’ skills improved, but the gamers developed more precise movements, moved surgical instruments with more economy, and performed more efficient cauterizations.

Good for: Veterans with PTSD

Video games may seem like a trivial solution for soldiers suffering the debilitating nightmares and flashbacks of post-traumatic stress disorder, but initial research suggests this may be a promising part of their therapy. Last summer, researchers at San Diego’s Naval Medical Center announced a clinical trial that would compare a type of video game therapy called neurofeedback with a placebo control, according to Wired.

Why: In the therapy, EEG electrodes are placed on certain areas of a patient’s head and read his or her brain activity. The brain waves interact with a computer console/video game system, and the patient is able to control “the key element of a videogame—like a car racing through a winding tunnel—using nothing more than their mind,” according to Wired. If their brain is calm and steady, the videogame responses accordingly, like the car runs more smoothly. If the brain activity is agitated and unpredictable, the car would lose control and crash. Neurofeedback, which relies on the idea of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and adapt, is thought to spur the brain to fix its own defects.

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