Scientific American surveys new research on whether playing videogames might be good for our brains. For example, one recent study by University of Rochester cognitive scientist Daphne Bavelier that I've blogged about previously suggests that games can exercise and enhance certain core vision functions. From SciAm:
It is appealing to envision video games being utilized in the rehabilitation of patients and the prevention of cognitive decline, promotion of brain fitness, and development of fundamental skills. However, more careful studies like those of Bavelier and colleagues are needed to realize such a goal. To date, much of the claims around this rapidly growing area of technology-supported medical interventions are insufficiently supported by scientific data.
In this context, a major advantage of video games is the fact that they can be made entertaining and engaging. Motivation is a powerful driver of brain plasticity. The highly realistic and engaging nature of these games allows the gamer to immerse themselves and “feel” like the simulation is really real (e.g. the intensity of combat). Such realistic engagement and the resulting enjoyment promotes brain changes.
Of course, a video game is not the same as the real thing. The motor plan to throw a football accurately (e.g. grip strength, depth perception, tracking the running receiver) versus the right sequences of touches on a game console are two different things. The development of systems that more realistically simulate motor actions and responses will probably be important.
It is likely that the functional impact of the brain plasticity induced by greater technology dependence will be different for different behaviors. For example, playing video games will train certain visuo-motor skill but also affect social development and interpersonal relation skills.