If you, like me, are a parent, this is one of the questions you must be asking yourself lately. It is hard to go for more than a few weeks before we are reminded by a news article or a study that extended screen time is bad for kids in so many ways: from creating addictive behaviors to developing social ineptitude. Gaming and social media are the usual culprits for the mental and social deterioration of our children. I do not mean to be flippant about the effect that gaming and social media could have on young minds, but I wanted to try and find out if it was all bad. I am going to leave social media alone for now and focus on gaming. I am making a separation between the two because I believe the way teenagers use social media has more to do with life values and goals than screen time.
I am no scientist nor have I studied the human mind beyond what I covered in my Masters in Psychological Research Methods, so I went looking for help from someone who has done and continues to do a lot of work in the area of neuroscience and sensory perception: Poppy Crum, Ph.D. Mrs. Crum is an adjunct professor at Stanford where her work focuses on the impact and feedback potential of new technologies with gaming and immersive environments on neuroplasticity. Mrs. Crum is also the Chief Scientist at Dolby Laboratories where she directs the growth of internal science. She is responsible for integrating neuroscience and knowledge of sensory perception into algorithm design, technological development, and technology strategy. As it pertains to gaming, for instance, Dolby has done a lot of work on how sound improves your response, which if you ever played a game you know can quickly determine if you will be a winner or a loser.
I first met Mrs. Crum at CES where we quickly engaged in an exciting conversation about the positive impact of gaming on our cognitive system. I was fascinated by her class at Stanford where she teaches: Music 257: Neuroplasticity and Musical Gaming. Aside from focusing on current research in neuroplasticity and auditory physiology, her students spend time in the labs learning how to design and implement video games from a neurological perspective, with the final group project being a video game that teaches a new skill using neuroplasticity.
Here is the Official description of the class:
What changes in a musician’s brain after hours and years of daily practice? How do skills that make a great violinist transfer to other abilities? Can directed neuroplasticity be used to target skill learning? Music 257 covers fundamentals of psychoacoustics and auditory neuroscience with an emphasis on targeted neural adaptation. Students will develop video games in Unity that use perceptually motivated tasks to drive neural change. Emphasis will be on music, linguistic, and acoustic-based skills. Projects may include development for virtual reality and/or biofeedback. Students will present projects in annual Arcade event at conclusion of the course. Programming experience is highly recommended, but not required.
Aside from being extremely jealous that my university in the UK did not have anything remotely that interesting when I studied there, I was fascinated by the excellent learning for the future of gaming and the opportunity we have to use gaming to enhance cognitive abilities.
Gaming and empathy
I have talked before about how my daughter is a big Fortnite fan, and I shared how when her time is up she gets genuinely upset, not about ending her fun time, but about letting her friends down by leaving the game. I have to admit that I struggle to feel sorry for her as I tend to think of these people more as imaginary friends than real friends.
Last week, however, I started to feel differently about it after reading a story about the discovery two parents made about their disabled son and his gaming life in World of Warcraft. Through his gaming life that crossed over a decade, Mats had developed strong friendships with people all over Europe, who when they found out about his passing showed their love and shared their memories by writing to his parents and some even by attending his funeral service. Connections were made, lives crossed in a way that it would have never been possible for Mats in real life, as he was confined to his parents’ basement due to his disability.
I think it is hard for many to believe that virtual relationships can be as genuine as real-life ones. Yet, Mrs. Crum shared with me a study run at McGill University that looked at pain reaction and empathy. The researcher, Jeffrey Mogil, measured pain reactions (caused by submerging an arm into an ice bucket) from people who were alone; with a friend; with a stranger; with a stranger when both had been given a stress-blocking drug; and with a stranger when both of them had just played Rock Band together. People who had a friend sitting across from them felt the highest level of pain, showing there was empathy between the two. Interesting, after 15 minutes of playing Rock Band together, the group of strangers exhibited empathy toward each. On the other hand, playing Rock Band alone didn’t increase empathy. According to Mr. Mogil the experiment proved that even 15 minutes of shared experience like playing Rock Band moves people from stranger to friend status, expanding the level of empathy.
Designing Gaming with Purpose
Mrs. Crum also pointed out to me how players of Call of Duty display higher visual acuity and strategic thinking ability. Their ability to think under pressure is even higher. These are all positive reactions to a game that was not designed to focus on enhancing cognitive skills. So think of the possibilities when game developers actually think strategically about the games they develop? This is precisely what Mrs. Crum’s students do during their project. Interestingly these students are often an unlikely group of people who would hang out together in real life. Gaming class at Stanford like in the larger world brings together people with different backgrounds and interests. Mrs. Crum’s class has athletes, math and science students as well as musicians all coming together to create an experience that while delivering a ton of fun also helps improve your mental and physical health.
So rather than labeling all gaming as bad and being concerned about how much time our kids spend with their devices, why not have the big gaming labels be more aware of both the positive and negative aspects of the shared, immersive experience that is gaming? As we move from 2D experience to AR and VR, our senses will be even more impacted by the experiences we live through gaming which means there is even greater potential to focus on improving our cognitive skills, lowering our stress in real life and improving our mental health all while still having fun running away from zombies.