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Video Games Can Actually Be Good for Kids

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This year, the keynote speaker at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) was Jane McGonigal, a woman who received her Ph.D. in game research from the University of California, Berkeley. She is the creative director of Social Chocolate (this title, alone, should have tipped me off that the presentation was not going to be "ho hum") and the director of game research and development at the Institute of the Future in Palo Alto, Calif.

I went to the NACAC kick-off talk, in spite of concerns that the topic was not exactly "my cup of tea." After all, video games, such as World of Warcraft, Angry Birds and Tetris, are kids' stuff, right? Mind-numbing, sometimes violent and a ridiculous waste of time. Turns out I was dead wrong! And after reading this blog, you might come to the same conclusion.

Author of The New York Times best-seller, Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, McGonigal began her talk by saying that there are 500 million active gamers in the world right now and by the time they reach the age of 21, each one of them will have spent 10,000 hours playing video games. (10,000 hours might sound like a familiar statistic; remember what Malcolm Gladwell said in Outliers about how individuals can become virtuosos in just about anything from sports to science by putting in that much time?) Ninety-five percent of American kids -- boys and girls alike -- under the age of 20 play video games.

Because this is a blog, I won't be able to go into as much detail as I would like, but here are a few tidbits Dr. McGonigal brought to her NACAC audience. I am providing links so that you access sources to follow-up on the information.

1. McGonigal began her talk by saying that "the opposite of play isn't work; it's depression." In clinical trials, video games have been shown to outperform medication for dealing with anxiety and depression. What's more, games help young people become more resilient in overcoming physical, emotional and social challenges.

2. "10 Positive Emotions" that gamers experience while involved with video games are joy, belief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, awe and wonder, contentment and creativity. Many commercial game developers understand that a game's success comes about from how many strong feelings it provokes in people who play the game. Therefore, a lot of conditions are built into games that bring forth those aforementioned emotions. "What else can people do that elicits ten positive emotions?" said McGonigal.

Most video game involvement is both social and cooperative because young people build relationships as they play with friends, acquaintances and even strangers. It has also been found that students who play games with their parents feel closer to them.

3. Unbelievably, ADHD symptoms are lessened when gamers who have attention deficit problems play their favorite video games. In addition, gamers with Autism Spectrum Disorder seem to increase their social intelligence after playing these games.

4. Based on solid scientific evidence, videogames may actually fill basic human needs that the real world fails to satisfy. McGonigal predicted that skilled gamers will be an important resource for solving some of the world's most pressing problems.

She mentioned a paper in the prestigious journal, Nature, that describes how 57,000 gamers with no previous background in biochemistry participated in a 3D game called Fold-it, to "fold virtual proteins in new ways that could help cure cancer or prevent Alzheimer's Disease." University of Washington scientists pitted supercomputers against these gamers and guess what: In more than half the games, the gamers beat the supercomputers! Apparently, kids who play games develop remarkable logical thinking, problem solving, observational, strategic, multi-tasking and visual skills.

5. Unlike video games, McGonigal says that today's real world is often missing something. Research shows that a good video game offers four key elements in having a happy, meaningful life: satisfying labor, hope for success, a strong social connection with other people and the opportunity to be a part of something larger than yourself. If that's not enough, video gamers have nearly a 30 percent higher creativity competency than non-gaming peers.

While she sees enormous potential as a result of what kids are now learning from video games, Jane McGonigal doesn't want to predict the future. On the contrary, she wants to save the future by helping young people develop transformative, social innovation skills through video gaming. From everything I heard at the NACAC conference, and what I am now reading in her book, I think she might be onto something quite powerful and real.

P.S.: As I read through a few education and psychology journal articles, I saw that many professionals are still concerned about the effect video game violence has on children. And so it seems, like everything else, parents and teachers need to monitor what video games their children play.