NEW YORK – Do video games rot kids' brains -- or are they turning the younger generations into an army of quick-reflexed geniuses?
With the furor over violent games like the wildly successful "Grand Theft Auto" series, the popular answer is the former. However, a handful of researchers are arguing that video games are, in fact, helping kids become smarter and faster than their forebears.
"Video games can enhance certain skills in a child," Texas A&M University professor Steve Dorman told The Aggie Daily. "Students with a high degree of spatial visualization are usually high achievers in math and science."
Dorman worked with University of Florida researchers to discover the effects of lifelong high-tech experience -- and found plenty, both good and bad.
He's not the first. Cornell University professor Ulric Neisser noted in a 1998 study that the industrial world's average IQ has increased about three points per decade since the 1940s, and that reasoning skills have increased by almost seven points per decade. He said much of the recent gains may be thanks to such modern-day pursuits as Pac-Man and instant messaging.
"I entirely agree … that experience with computers and the Internet can develop certain abilities that might otherwise be little used," he said.
In a study on a related technology -- cellular-phone use -- independent British researcher Sadie Plant reported that people under 25 have begun using their digits in a new way, relying on the once-clumsy thumb to perform fast-paced movements.
"There's no suggestion that there's a thumb mutation, but clearly, in terms of using any part of the body more frequently, thumbs have certainly come into their own," Plant said in a telephone interview.
Conducting her study on thousands of cell-phone users in Japan, China, Thailand, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, the U.S. and the United Kingdom, Plant discovered that the mobile phone has spawned a social sea change, giving rise to such trends as Tokyo's youth calling itself "oya yubi sedai" -- the thumb generation.
And, in the U.S. at least, that generation is getting younger. A Saatchi & Saatchi marketing study found that children as young as 4 or 5 years old are comfortable using CD-ROMs and perceive computers as toys. By age 11, they're regularly using the computer to socialize, actually becoming more outgoing as opposed to less, contradicting the myth of the friendless computer geek chained to his monitor.
Frequent video-game players, like 26-year-old Sam S. Hardy, say that spending hours blasting bad guys have made them surer shots in real life as well. Hardy spends much of his time in "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," where the player is encouraged to shoot cops, hijack fancy cars and run over innocent bystanders.
"I think they probably do make me more agile," the Lawrenceville, N.J., paralegal said. "And I would say that when I play more video games, after I'm done, at least for a while, I definitely tend to react to things more quickly, both mentally and physically."
But researchers didn't gloss over the downsides of growing up wired. Besides instances of game-provoked seizures and a form of tendinitis caused by game controllers, Dorman found some evidence that game-trained kids take a "gaming" approach to learning -- believing that education has to be fun to be worthwhile. He also said that, as critics like Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., often charge, video games may make kids more aggressive.
Indeed, according to researchers at the University of Indiana Medical School, playing violent video games can affect the way the brain works.
In a study released last week, Dr. Vincent P. Mathews said teens diagnosed with a condition called disruptive behavior disorder are likely to "act out by harming animals or property" after hours of gaming.
Hardy said that even though he feels more dexterous, the only place he's been able to apply his new powers is in the video-game world.
"I think it's pretty much something that's specific to the activity," he said. "Perhaps if I were to go start car-jacking people, I'd see some benefits."
And Hardy doesn't necessarily want to use his improved prowess for good.
"I was driving the other day after playing a lot of 'Vice City' and I saw this kid riding a bike on the street," he said. "The first thing that flashed through my mind was, 'I should cut this kid off with my car.'"