Ruby’s ruminations on...the case for video games

Ruby Hryniszak is a regular contributor to the Harborough Mail online.
Ruby Hryniszak is a regular contributor to the Harborough Mail online.

Video games have sparked a lot of controversy, socially, and with what some would think to be good reason.

Mindlessly throwing yourself into a gaming world for hours on end can’t be healthy, nor supportive of intelligence, can it?

Ruby thinks video games can help brain function. This is taken from Call of Duty Modern Warfare 4

Ruby thinks video games can help brain function. This is taken from Call of Duty Modern Warfare 4

Let it never be said that I think video games have no cons. Many a night have I sat playing MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-play games) on my laptop, knowing full well that I have homework to do and that if I don’t close the game I will never have my essay finished for the next day.

That isn’t so much me suffering from severe brain-rot due to over-playing as it is me being a sloth and desperately procrastinating the work I know I’ll never be able to get out of.

But I have a thing or two to say to anybody who refuses to let their children play video games for the reason that they encourage violent behaviour or cause a lack of brain development.

First-person shooters, role-play, action, puzzle... There are so many genres and so many popular titles to each genre. It’s not surprising to hear that each different genre affects thought processes in different ways.

They all require different skills. I personally enjoy a good role-playing game or a puzzle game. That’s not to say I don’t play anything else. I’m a huge Borderlands fan and I love to play Nazi Zombies on Call of Duty (no matter how bad I am at it).

They all force me to use different parts of my brain and to think differently to the way I would in a normal everyday situation. I’m not going to have a lot of bad words to say about video games, then, given that I like to play as much as your average lad probably does.

I’m actually of the mind that playing games of varying styles for suitable amounts of time (obviously this doesn’t apply if you do a 14-hour stint on something like Burnout Paradise or Halo, or anything else - 14 hours non-stop is probably going to impair your judgement by lack of sleep alone) will improve brain function and not necessarily increase intellect, but certainly sharpen some senses and encourage development in certain parts of the brain.

This is supported by quite a few studies recently, which are where I’ve got a lot of my points from.

Before I explain the results of those studies, I’d like to admit some of the problems with gaming. I’m sure if I don’t say them, somebody else will, so I might as well put them at the beginning, before I demonstrate how the ends justify the means.

Video games are addictive. I’m happy to admit I’ve pulled an all-nighter playing Minecraft, easily. That was one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had because I was exhausted the next day and I’m not sure that I was actually speaking English the entire day. That didn’t do my brain any good.

I know plenty of other people who’ve put themselves in the same situation. You’re playing a game and there’s just one more mission to do, so you say to yourself, “I’ll do this and then go to bed,” but then that unlocks something new you can do. Everything leads to something else and before you know it, you’ve been sat for four hours trying to complete a quest chain so you can have a better weapon.

My college tutor told me a story about him and his brother and their Nintendo 64. He hates football games but they happened to have one, and just out of sheer boredom, he decided to have a go at it. They sat up until 5am playing a game that they didn’t enjoy because it was too addictive to stop. People suffer from withdrawal symptoms and video games addiction is an actual problem, now that just about every household has some sort of gaming platform and most people enjoy playing some sort of game in their spare time. It’s a medical condition now. That’s definitely a negative to video games and I’ll admit that.

The other downside that I’m also all too familiar with is the time that they take up. One weekend, I spent an entire day playing DeathSpank on my brother’s XBox 360. It didn’t feel like a full day. I felt like I’d been there for a few hours, but I sat there all day. I wouldn’t have eaten anything if my mum hadn’t brought me any food during the day, because I was so consumed by the game.

I had a lot planned for that day: Video gaming, reading, drawing, a little bit of exercise, and some internet time. I got nothing done because I was gaming.

Games have stopped me from doing a lot of homework over the years. I got away with it because I was well-behaved and the teachers liked me, and they usually forgot, but if I’d been more of a pain, they probably would’ve kicked me out.

I’m a great procrastinator; It’s one of my many skills. Video games helped me do that even more efficiently than ever before.

In a lot of cases it’s easier to pick up a controller, or assume the browsing position at your laptop, and immerse yourself in a fantasy world, than it is to sit down and focus on a piece of work.

If you’re stressed, pretending the work isn’t there at all is great fun until you get into trouble for not doing it, and video games are a brilliant distraction from the work you have to do.

So, they eat up time, and they distract you from more important things. They’re also as addictive as anything else that triggers your brain’s reward pathways (exercise, drugs, music...). They’re the biggest problems with video games.

But you know what they’re good for?....

They’re great for keeping you calm under pressure. A lot of games face you with stressful situations one after the other, and to begin with that’s hard to cope with. I scream at Creepers and Spiders when I’m playing Minecraft, so you can imagine how well I cope with really intense games.

After a while, though, you get used to it. You learn to stay calm and to think logically and carefully, no matter what’s going on.

You learn to see things in a sort of slow-motion, as your thought processes quicken and you’re able to keep yourself under control even though the world could well be crumbling around you.

That calmness is helpful in so many situations. It’s almost therapeutic, playing games. If you’re stressed or anxious, being placed in a situation that makes you think quickly and rationally not only distracts you from the cause of your stress, but also stimulates your brain.

There are a lot of different distraction techniques to help with stress and anxiety, but the ones that work the best are the ones that involve the most concentration.

Video games take an awful lot of concentration, which means whilst you’re playing, there’s no hope of your worries slipping back into your mind.

I’ve used gaming as a method to help me with my GAD (General Anxiety Disorder) and it’s helped a lot. If you put yourself through a fast-paced game on a regular basis, you can help control your stress and hopefully, learn to stop it in the first place.

Gaming is also good for improving strategic thinking and spatial awareness. On games like Call of Duty, you’re always on the lookout for enemies, and you have to spot them before they see you.

That’s difficult when you first start playing but after a while, you see things differently. You become more aware of the shapes around you and you’re able to notice tiny movements, and pick out the shapes that could be potentially dangerous.

Another interesting improvement related to surroundings that is seen in gamers is memory. Games demand a knowledge of your surroundings, otherwise you might get lost, stumble into a dangerous or over-leveled area, and die.

You have to think about where you are and remember the signs. You have to remember the things that are around you and consciously note every piece of your surroundings. That helps you spot any differences, which could turn out to be enemies, and also helps find your way around.

That can translate to better spatial awareness in real life, too. It makes you more observant, because in the game it’s a life-or-death situation, and nobody wants the latter. That becomes habitual and once you’ve developed the skill, you do it without thinking.

Strategic thinking comes into the equation when we’re talking about more thought-based games, or games that involve stealth rather than charging into a building full of soldiers with guns blazing.

Take Assassin’s Creed, for example. Sometimes you’ll get a mission that requires you to kill without being detected. You can’t just stroll right into a restricted area without alerting the guards, and you certainly can’t just kill a man in plain sight if you don’t want to be detected.

To be successful you need to think logically. You need to really plan what you’re doing, and be careful about how you go about the murder. You need a strategy.

Other games pit you up against huge teams, or will face you with problems that you need to get yourself out of. That needs some sort of strategy. In competitive games, you need to be strategic to beat your opponent. That’s a skill that can easily be employed in real-life situations. Being business-minded is all about being strategic, which means that gaming can be an asset.

Another skill you can sharpen using games is reaction speed. Games are fast and if you want to win, you need to move quickly. That means you have to see things and know what to do straight away, before anything has a chance to kill you. Even if you choose to run to give yourself more time to think, you’ve made a quick decision, rather than standing around umming and ahhing about whether or not you should run or shoot, or both.

Playing competitive Call Of Duty, you’re against another team of players who are all trying to kill you for points. You want to kill them first? Hurry up. When you’re stood face-to-face with an enemy, and you both have your guns aimed and ready, the person who’s got the quicker reactions is going to shoot first and get the kill. Accuracy goes hand-in-hand with your reaction speed. I know one of the things that takes time for new gamers is aiming their gun just so to get the most impressive headshot. You do not have time to stand for five minutes trying to aim your gun. Point it at them and fire and if you get a headshot, great, but you just want to hit them and do some damage. After a while of playing, you learn to aim quickly and your responses to movement sharpen, and you become a fast, accurate shooter. It takes time but that accuracy can shave precious seconds off of the time it takes you to shoot. Accuracy and reaction times might not apply to every single occupation you could possibly take up, but they’re certainly useful to have in some situations, and could potentially save a life.

One of the studies found that playing just 30 minutes a day for two months can increase grey matter in areas of the brain associated with memory, spatial awareness and strategic thinking.

Of course, the improvements depend on the sorts of games you’re playing, but as I said before, every sort of game will improve different skills.

If you’re playing a fast-paced shooter, it’s bound to work on your reactions and accuracy. A puzzle game will be more helpful in improving spatial awareness and strategic thinking. All of this extra stimulation can help to improve the health of the brain and keep your mind younger, in a sense.

To keep your body healthy, you need a good, balanced diet, which includes all the food groups (including chocolate). I like to think that the best way to help keep your brain healthy is to play a good variety of different video games, of all different genres.

They all train different parts of the brain, so if you play a lot of them, they should keep you sharp, so long as you remember to sleep and eat and go to work the next day.

So nobody can claim that video games are the cause of low IQs. A lot of parents like to argue that games are bad because they encourage violent behaviour. Really?

If a young child is given a copy of Left 4 Dead or Dead Island, they might be a bit disturbed by the blood and the violence, and the terrifying terrain and zombies you have to creep around, and that could result in violent behaviour, but it certainly won’t turn them into a born-and-bred zombie hunter.

You know your children better than anyone else, and so long as you know your children know the difference between real violence and computer-generated violence, they can play as much as they like (within reason).

A child who’s calm isn’t going to play Grand Theft Auto for the first time and suddenly be transformed into a car thief and murderer.

You can’t change somebody’s nature with a video game. It can flick a switch, and uncover a violent part of that person’s character that had been previously concealed, but it won’t change somebody. They were always violent inside, but it took the game to bring it out.

I have a slightly depressing simile for this: Cancer cells. We all have cancer cells, but it takes something to trigger them and switch them on. Violent behaviour works in the same way. People are genetically predisposed to having violent characteristics, and it just takes something to trigger it and switch that part of them on, as it were.

If you brought your kids up well and taught them that hurting others is wrong, then give them a copy of Call Of Duty and relax, safe in the knowledge that your good parenting has saved the world another psychopathic video-game killer.

I know two people who perfectly demonstrate the fact that video games don’t affect your nature. My brother, and my boyfriend. They’re both unbelievably calm and collected, and they both play a lot of games.

They’re both gentle and kind-natured, and they both play a lot of violent games. Granted, they’re both into their strategic games and their puzzle games, too, but they’re partial to a bit of CoD every now and then.

My brother plays games every day. Literally every day, and he has done for years. He’s still the calm, placid person I grew up with.

In fact, I’m probably more violent than he is, and I definitely don’t play as many violent games as he does!

My boyfriend is exactly the same. I know him as being calm and gentle, but I’ve seen him brutally murder men on Assassin’s Creed a few times now.

The contrast is amazing, really, because you wouldn’t think that either of them plays hyper-violent games just to look at them.

The only people who pick up violent behaviour from games are people who are easily influenced and don’t understand the difference between games and real life.

It’s true to say that children now are more accustomed to violence than children of the last couple of generations. Being used to it doesn’t mean we think it’s okay. We know not to grab a knife and go out stabbing people, and the children who don’t know that are the ones who aren’t mature enough to cope with violent games.

So, what I’m trying to say is that parents shouldn’t stop their kids from playing video games. You wouldn’t stop somebody from reading or drawing, or playing music, so why would you stop them from playing games?

They’re only going to play the games you won’t let them play every time they go to their friends’ houses.

One of my brother’s friends was banned by his mother from playing any games with any sort of violence in them, and he still played them at our house whenever he came over.

They didn’t bother him at all and he never thought he should actually get a gun and shoot people. At school, he was left out for quite a while, because games are a seriously important part of playground conversation.

What did you think of the new GTA? How about AC Black Flag? Have you got the newest console yet? If he’s not allowed to play any of those games he won’t be able to talk to anyone. It’s like ripping out a huge part of his childhood.

I’m on a music course at college, and there are not many girls in my class, so I have to hang around with a lot of boys when I’m at college. Gaming isn’t just a children’s hobby. We talk about games all the time, even now, and it doesn’t get old because there’s always something new happening.

You can’t keep children away from games any more than you can keep me away from my guitar or a bar of chocolate. They’ll grow up surrounded by games whether you try to ban them from it or not.

Games don’t just bring friends together at school. They can bond families and couples. I love gaming with my boyfriend - it’s great fun.

Competitive or co-op, it’s a good way to spend time with him and it’s something we can do together. I’m forever thankful that he puts up with my awful driving and my rubbish aim, but that’s what makes it fun. It’s something to laugh at.

Having a games console on at family parties is a great way to give everyone something to do, and it brings everyone together when their team wins, and the competition keeps everyone involved.

An interesting snippet of what’s current in the gaming world: PS4 and XBox One came out last year, and hopefully 2014 will see a new console by Steam. Assassin’s Creed Black Flag came out fairly recently, and the new CoD has a new Extinction mode this time around, instead of zombies.

I asked a few mates what their favourite games of all time are, and I got a really interesting response, because there were so many different answers: Assassin’s Creed, Minecraft, Skyrim, Oblivion, Battlefront, Deadpool, Need For Speed, Guitar Hero and Silent Hill were all games that some of my friends told me were their favourites. My favourites are Minecraft and Borderlands, easily.

I really just wanted to point out that all of the arguments against games are invalid, so long as the child is playing responsibly.

If you’ve brought them up well, there’s no problem, and really nobody can deny that it keeps them quiet.

Video games don’t make you stupid. They don’t necessarily make you highly intelligent, but they don’t cause your brain to deteriorate.

They don’t make you violent. I’d definitely let my kids have a games console, on the condition that they let me play, and I can’t think of any reason why you shouldn’t let your children play.

Column by Ruby Hryniszak.

Ruby is a regular contributor to the Harborough Mail online.

Follow Ruby on Twitter, @13eautifulLife.