It’s becoming so ubiquitous that the hatred is old hat to us. Don’t allow your kids to play videogames. It deadens their imagination, makes them more violent, exposes them to boobies and ruins their social conditioning with other kids. Don’t allow your kids to play roleplaying games. It’s a gateway drug to the occult, it encourages devil worship, suicide and only losers do it, anyway.

Most gamers are tired of hearing this, so tired they’re numb to the criticisms. But what we don’t hear enough of is the truth of the matter: Gaming is good for you.

Really.

While many have blamed today’s hectic lifestyle – and computer games – on the rise of attention deficit disorder in children, the fact has gone silently under the radar that there are computer games available that are specifically designed to help kids with ADD.

NASA developed a high-tech helmet to assist pilots in flight simulator training, measuring sustained attention, engagement, awareness and stress. Using neurofeedback, the helmet can register how much the user is focusing – the very problem ADD sufferers have. Doctors soon discovered its usefulness in therapeutic situations, as these are qualities monitored in children with ADD. The helmet supports a surprising number of games on the PlayStation, PS2 and Xbox systems. After measuring the neurofeedback from the child, the helmet modifies the game. For example, if the child’s attention starts to waver, the game slows down. It works best with racing or platform games that require speed and direction control, responding to higher focus and rewarding things other than hand-eye coordination.

The S.M.A.R.T. BrainGames EEG Neurofeedback system from Smartbraingames.com won’t even break the bank. But does it work?

This past March, doctors declared that 9-year-old Ethan Meyers was brain dead after a car accident, and when he woke up, would never function on his own. But Ethan has regained much of his memory and mental abilities, partially with the help of videogame therapy from the same S.M.A.R.T. BrainGames product.

It has long been known that doing puzzles is good for your brain, and there’s a plethora of cheap puzzle games available, and even more can be found for free online. What’s more, Big Brain Academy and Brain Age are selling Nintendo DSes just as quickly as New Super Mario Bros. These games are so popular, the publishers are developing marketing campaigns to focus on women and the elderly.

Brain Age tests your concentration with a variety of tests from arithmetic to word memorization – and of course, it runs the puzzle game that’s all the rage now: Sudoku. It uses the microphone for some voice recognition games, such as saying the color of a word – if a word “red” shows up in the color blue, you have to say “blue.” It’s challenging, and even more so when your dog decides to bark at the UPS driver while you’re yelling “Red!” at your DS. It also utilizes the touch screen with handwriting recognition software for arithmetic and writing games. All of the games, as the little bobbing host head constantly reminds you, are good for your prefrontal cortex.

On a social and religious level, roleplaying games (namely Dungeons & Dragons) have been mocked, feared and demonized. In pop culture, playing D&D is considered the stamp of the Geek With No Social Abilities

Last September, Derek suffered a stroke; specifically what’s called a “bleed.”

“A bundle of small blood vessels at the base of my skull ruptured and started to fill my skull with blood,” Derek said. “They had to go in and drill three or four holes and insert tubes into my head to let out the excess blood.” He was in a coma for 45 days.

We figure Derek lost at least three-fourths of his hit points that night in September. His recovery has not had any Cure Light Wounds speed, sadly. It’s been slow, proceeding in baby steps to begin to get back the skills he lost during the stroke.

At the beginning of the 2006 summer, Derek was nearing the end of his official speech therapy appointments. His therapist, Karen Patterson, asked him what he did for fun, since a lot of everyday activities count as therapy for stroke victims, and if they can have fun during therapy, all the better. When he mentioned his D&D playing, Karen asked for more information.

“Once she read more about D&D and other games of the type, she realized that it is a good use of my time at home to get myself back to talking normally and with friends and coworkers,” Derek said. “She also found out that in the early days of the creation of D&D, it was used at hospitals and schools for kids and others that had issues with talking and other problems with relating to others, or with the world in general. So, she became a big fan of me getting back to doing the gaming with friend on a normal schedule. Who was I to argue?”

Patterson was right that D&D has been used in speech therapy before, but the ironic thing is that there are several examples of it being used in psychotherapy. In 1994, Wayne D. Blackmon published an article in the American Journal of Psychotherapy titled “Dungeons and Dragons: The Use of a Fantasy Game in the Psychotherapeutic Treatment of a Young Adult.” In his study, Blackmon had a suicidal patient by the name of Fred who resisted conventional therapy with great hostility, but his therapy had a significant turning point when Fred joined a D&D game. Blackmon writes, “It did allow him some social contact, and the eagerness with which he told me about the game indicated to me the importance of his sharing this material. I began to encourage him to bring summaries of episodes into therapy and to ask about motivation and feelings of characters.”

After exploring issues regarding his parents and his mentally challenged brother, Fred began to recognize the range of feelings from love to hate within therapy, and to master them.

Games are easy targets for the fundamentalist leaders and uninformed parents who want to blame the Problems of the Youth Today on one easily defined and censorable hobby. Have gamers killed people? Yes. But so have sports fans, rifle enthusiasts, military personnel, NASCAR devotees and people with other hobbies. And yet roleplaying is the one hobby that is vilified; it’s the one that people always assume has a definite connection to violence.

Detractors point to the fact that you can worship demons, cast spells and kill innocents in games, and that these lead to more violent thoughts that escalate into actions in real life. But, as the case of Fred showed us, sometimes the violent actions in our imaginations can act as a valve on a pressure cooker, letting us pretend to do things that we know are socially reprehensible. Fred’s character had killed a rich man’s sons and was conspiring to marry his daughter in order to gain the man’s fortune. Blackmon writes, “As he recounted this material in the therapy we focused on two questions: the motives and feelings of the character as he schemed and acted, and whether Fred had ever had such feelings, and in what situations. Gradually, he was able to relate that he had felt his brother had always gotten the family ‘treasures’ of love and attention and that he had wanted to murder him much of the time.”

We didn’t see Fred running out and killing his family who he resented. Instead he played it out, releasing the frustration and anger in a controlled game setting. Games are a stress reliever, an escape. A pediatric dentist in Cary, NC, has a waiting room that’s fitted with TVs and Xboxes to comfort and calm nervous patients. Why they have to keep this only in pediatric dentist’s offices, I’ll never know. My dentist prescribes me Valium. I’d rather have Final Fantasy VIII.

While games do have direct therapeutic applications, their benefits can extend beyond those suffering psychologically. Gamers should be familiar with Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik‘s three-year-old charity, Child’s Play. The creators of the mega-popular Penny Arcade webcomic started a charity in order to address yet another report about how gamers were nothing but violent, socially-repressed dorks. This charity has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of toys, books and yes, games for children’s hospitals.

“Incorporating videogames marks a new frontier that taps young people’s fascination with animation and electronics to sweeten often frightening, lengthy and tedious medical treatments. … Videogames are being used, for instance, to help sick children manage pain and anxiety during hospital stays,” says a Reuters report.

Every year, hospitals make a wish list of items to keep sick children occupied during treatment. The items can be as simple as a $3 coloring book to a $400 Xbox 360. And yes, several 360s make it into children’s wards. The larger consoles, Nintendo GBAs, DSs, PSPs and scores of games are available for rent in hospitals, occupying young kids’ times.

And who can forget the whole issue of obesity? “Games make kids fat” was one of the rallying cries, until, that is, Dance Dance Revolution came out. The game was so engaging that kids of all energy levels wanted to play, and some progressive – some might call them desperate – schools in West Virginia actually incorporated DDR into their physical education program.

Let’s face it; Nothing is black and white anymore. For every kid who got fat and anti-social from playing too much Monster Rancher, there’s a kid with ADD who can focus without meds, or a kid who doctors claimed would always be brain damaged, or an adult who is finally able to function socially. Penny Arcade‘s Holkins and Krahulik might also argue that gaming makes one more generous, as their $600,000-plus take for Child’s Play 2005 showed.

Whatever the issue, it’s clear that the gaming good/bad debate is firmly mired in gray territory. We, as gamers, just need to find a way to make the good side heard as loudly as the bad. With doctors, psychiatrists, dentists, speech therapists and high school curriculum planners on our side, we might actually make some headway. Gaming is good for you.

Mur Lafferty is a freelance writer and podcast producer. She has dabbled in as much gaming as possible, from her website work at Red Storm Entertainment to her RPG writing for White Wolf Publishing. Currently she writes freelance for several gaming publications and produces three podcasts: Geek Fu Action Grip, I Should Be Writing and Pseudopod: the Horror Podcast Magazine. She lives in Durham, NC.

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