Video games can change a person's brain and, as researchers are finding, often that change is for the better.
A growing body of university research suggests that gaming improves creativity, decision-making and perception. The specific benefits are wide ranging, from improved hand-eye coordination in surgeons to vision changes that boost night driving ability.
People who played action-based video and computer games made decisions 25 percent faster than others without sacrificing accuracy, according to a study. Indeed, the most adept gamers can make choices and act on them up to six times a second -- four times faster than most people, other researchers found. Moreover, practiced game players can pay attention to more than six things at once without getting confused, compared with the four that someone can normally keep in mind, said University of Rochester researchers. The studies were conducted independently of the companies that sell video and computer games.
Scientists also found that women -- who make up about 42 percent of computer and videogame players -- were better able to mentally manipulate 3D objects, a skill at which men are generally more adept. Most studies looked at adults rather than children.
Electronic gameplay has its downside. Brain scans show that violent video games can alter brain function in healthy young men after just a week of play, depressing activity among regions associated with emotional control, researchers at Indiana University recently reported. Other studies have found an association between compulsive gaming and being overweight, introverted and prone to depression. The studies didn't compare the benefits of gaming with such downsides.
The violent action games that often worry parents most had the strongest beneficial effect on the brain. "These are not the games you would think are mind-enhancing," said cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier, who studies the effect of action games at Switzerland's University of Geneva and the University of Rochester in New York.
Computer gaming has become a $25 billion-a-year entertainment business behemoth since the first coin-operated commercial video games hit the market 41 years ago. In 2010, gaming companies sold 257 million video and computer games, according to figures compiled by the industry's trade group, the Entertainment Software Association.
For scientists, the industry unintentionally launched a mass experiment in the neurobiology of learning. Millions of people have immersed themselves in the interactive reward conditioning of electronic game play, from "Tetris," "Angry Birds" and "Farmville," to shooter games and multi-player, role-playing fantasies such as "League of Legend," which has been played one billion times or so in the two years since it was introduced.
"Video games change your brain," said University of Wisconsin psychologist C. Shawn Green, who studies how electronic games affect abilities. So does learning to read, playing the piano, or navigating the streets of London, which have all been shown to change the brain's physical structure. The powerful combination of concentration and rewarding surges of neurotransmitters like dopamine strengthen neural circuits in much the same way that exercise builds muscles. But "games definitely hit the reward system in a way that not all activities do," he said.
Broadly speaking, today's average gamer is 34 years old and has been playing electronic games for 12 years, often up to 18 hours a week. By one analyst's calculation, the 11 million or so registered users of the online role-playing fantasy "World of Warcraft" collectively have spent as much time playing the game since its introduction in 2004 as humanity spent evolving as a species -- about 50 billion hours of game time, which adds up to about 5.9 million years.