Play These Video Games to Perform Better … in Life

The proof is in: Video games improve physical and mental skills that come in handy in the real world. Here’s what to play to get an edge.

Could there be benefits to playing “Halo” for hours on end … besides getting really good at “Halo”?

Over the past few years, research has shown that video games can give you an edge at some real-world skills. Actual, useful skills, stuff that will come in handy at times other than when you happen to come across an energy sword.

“When I was at Beth Israel Hospital, I noticed that surgeons who played video games were better at laparoscopic surgery,” says Dr. Paul Lynch, an Arizona doctor who’s been studying the effects of video games on physiology for over 20 years. Laparoscopic surgery involves inserting a camera into the patient. “In that type of procedure, surgeons have their hands on instruments while looking at a screen. It’s almost like playing a video game.”

That’s a very specific example of video games honing a particular skill, but all kinds of studies that have been done over the years point to the many benefits of gaming. Rolf Nelson, a professor of psychology at Wheaton College, recently looked at the effects of gaming on cognitive abilities.

“Different video games cause players to adopt different strategies in subsequent tasks,” says Nelson. “For example, after playing a fast-paced shooting game, players tend to sacrifice accuracy in favor of speed in a completely unrelated task.”

So which kinds of games emphasize which skills? Lynch’s research can give us a clue. In his study, he had his game-playing surgeons play three different kinds of games, each of which improved specific tasks:

To Improve Visual Skills:

Playing a shooter, particularly one with targeting crosshairs and a sniper-like experience, can improve visual skills. Anyone who plays “Halo 3”or “BioShock 2” will probably be better at tracking several objects at once and making snap decisions. That could be useful playing sports, but Nelson suggests it could be a benefit for even more mundane tasks.

“If you’re playing ‘Halo’ with friends,” he says, “you need to track where they all are and to distinguish them from non-threatening things. Thus, video game players just may be able to find their keys faster in a messy room.”

To Improve Spatial Perception:

Second, games with heavy 3-D graphics can bestow better spatial perception. The immersive experience of “Super Monkey Ball” constantly forces players to imagine depth of field. That could come in handy in drafting or graphic design.

“What I can say with a fair amount of confidence is that for any task that uses a graphical user interface, video games can certainly help,” says Lynch.

To Improve Reaction Time:

Finally, racing games like “Supercar Challenge” may have an effect on reaction time. Surgeons in Lynch’s study who played “Star Wars Racer Revenge” were quicker with their scalpels than those who didn’t.

So in light of the potential benefits, should you schedule more quality time with your PS3? Not quite. As Nelson’s research showed, games that emphasize one goal (say, speed) may cause you to sacrifice another (accuracy). He also warns of other consequences: “There may be other larger trade-offs, such as depression or a loss of social life — but that’s a bigger issue.”

Peter Pachal is a former writer for the men’s lifestyle magazine Cargo and the current editor of the SyFy Network tech blog “DVICE.”

Image credit: Chris Chidsey

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