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Video games may be good for your brain after all

New findings brazenly defy decades of research

Published: Thursday, May 31 2012 4:53 p.m. MDT

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Michigan State psychology professor Linda Jackson freely admits she had no idea what a bombshell her findings about video games would prove to be.

Jackson is the lead researcher on a study published last year in the academic journal "Computers in Human Behavior" that shows 12-year-olds who play video games are more creative than those who don't. The research also demonstrates that a child's usage of cellphones, computers or the Internet has no statistical correlation to creativity.

Needless to say, such findings brazenly defy decades of research that suggest prolonged exposure to video games would harm children's brains. Conventional wisdom has held that a link exists between playing video games and negative traits like social isolation and violent behavior.

"The results did surprise me," Jackson said. "I expected the reverse. But of course once you get the results, then you do an after-the-fact explanation.

"And video games demand a lot of imagination, a lot of thinking about the unexpected — or being able to anticipate the less-probable response. People who can do those sorts of things tend to be more creative."

The work of Jackson and her colleagues is part of a growing body of new research that collectively calls into question the conventional wisdom that too many video games inflict significant harm on children and families.

A shifting landscape

For Wall Street Journal science writer Richard Lee Hotz, the shift in thinking on video games really took hold when he came across Jackson's research late last year. Hotz, twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, has covered science and technology at major newspapers for more than 30 years. He had grown accustomed to seeing study after study about the perils of video games — research that often involved a small number of participants or received funding from third parties looking for specific results to advance their narrative.

"Since video games were first introduced," Hotz said, "we've been inundated with research papers that have suggested strongly that these games are very bad for people. … The studies were very, very small, and involved only a handful of people.

"Recently, there's been a series of thoughtful papers by researchers who have no particular connection to the gaming interest and no particular interest in it, that has pointed out how half-baked a lot of this research has been."

For example, researchers at the University of Rochester turned conventional wisdom about video games on its head when they published a series of studies over the past five years that showed video games — and especially violent, action-based video games like "Halo" and "Call of Duty" — train a player's brain to pay attention to five or more things at once without getting confused (the average person can only be attentive to four things simultaneously).

But the Michigan State study particularly caught Hotz's eye, in large part because of its rich trove of data inextricably linking video games and creativity. Jackson and Co. harvested thousands of data points by administering two versions of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking — one involving drawing and the other storytelling — to each of 491 pre-teens. Every test had to be assigned a score, and in order to insulate against personal subjectivity, Jackson had a panel of six undergraduate students grade each Torrance Test that a 12-year-old completed.

All that data permitted Jackson to isolate video game playing away from other similar factors such as using cellphones, the Internet or personal computers.

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