By John Salak –
It seems if someone looks long and hard enough, they can always find a silver lining—even in much-maligned activities and products. Consider video games. Lots of people, especially younger ones, seem addicted to them. That’s easy to understand. They can be challenging, fun, competitive and engrossing. Until recently though they didn’t have a lot of advocates proclaiming their inherent worth. Now, however, that may be changing.
In the last 18 months, various reports have surfaced underscoring the potential emotional and physical benefits of gaming. Some now claim that regular online gaming can ease tension, improve eye-hand coordination, support healthy aging and promote cognitive development. A growing number of universities have even moved to sponsor varsity gaming teams, complete with scholarships.
Now another study from the University of Geneva in Switzerland and the University of Trento in Italy indicate that video games may actually help some children learn to read more quickly, while also supporting their long-term reading proficiency skills. Educators and scientists have long recognized that turning letters into sounds is essential for young children to read. Recently they’ve also recognized that other skills are needed as well.
“Reading calls upon several other essential mechanisms that we don’t necessarily think about, such as knowing how to move our eyes on the page or how to use our working memory to link words together in a coherent sentence,” reported Daphné Bavelier, a professor at the Swiss university. Video games may be one of the best ways to develop these skills, added Angela Pasqualotto, the joint study’s first author. “These other skills, such as vision, the deployment of attention, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, are known to be improved by action video games,” she explained.
Of course, not any old action game fits the bill. Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and Mortal Kombat just weren’t right. Instead of using off-the-shelf games, the research team built their own child-friendly product for its study. The team’s product combined the action of traditional video games but eliminated the violence. The researchers also incorporated mini-games into their version to train different executive functions, such as working memory, inhibition and cognitive flexibility, which are all needed to thrive at reading. “The universe of this game is an alternative world in which the child, accompanied by his Raku, a flying creature, must carry out different missions to save planets and progress in the game,” Pasqualotto explained.
Researchers then worked with 150 school-aged children from 8 to 12 to test how the game impacted the development of reading skills. The outcomes were startling. There was a seven-fold improvement in attentional control among children who played the video game compared to those who didn’t. Beyond this, the players also saw improvement in reading speed and retention, which the Swiss and Italian researchers found remarkable given reading isn’t involved in playing the game.
Better still, the impact of the video game had staying power. “The effects are thus long-term, in line with the action video game strengthening the ability to learn how to learn,” Bavelier said. The study doesn’t necessarily mean parents should prop their young ones in front of video games for hours on end. The video game built by researchers isn’t ready yet for public consumption. But that doesn’t mean something similar won’t be available soon.