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Not Just Playing Around

Like many other alluring things on this Earth, video games can toe the line between good and evil. They are notoriously addicting (sometimes to their users' detriment) — but that quality also allows them to function as a successful medium in rehabilitation and therapy applications.

“There are some people who claim that playing video games contributes to attention deficit, that it rewires our brains,” said NASA Langley Research Center scientist Alan Pope. “Well, if that’s the case, then let’s decide how we want video games rewiring our brain.” Pope and his team are developing “Mindshift” gaming technology that helps users learn how to control stress and sharpen their ability to concentrate. A former version of this NASA-developed technology has also been commercialized into a game for children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Read more about the technology here.

It appears that games may indeed “rewire” our brains — for better or for worse. In a recent University of Oxford experiment, healthy volunteers viewed a film that included traumatic images of injury from a variety of sources. After waiting for 30 minutes, 20 volunteers played Tetris for 10 minutes, 20 volunteers played Pub Quiz, a word-based quiz game, for 10 minutes, and a final set of 20 volunteers did nothing.

Subjects who played Tetris reportedly experienced significantly fewer flashbacks of the film, while those who played Pub Quiz actually experienced significantly more flashbacks, in comparison to the control group of volunteers who did nothing. This surprised me, because I had guessed that the games would have a neutral or beneficial effect on the subjects — certainly not a negative effect, as in the case of the word-based game.

Could it be the visual component of Tetris that, at least in this particular experiment, made it a better candidate for reducing the incidence of traumatic flashbacks? Whatever the reason, it's nice to have an excuse to play a bit of Techtris (NASA Tech Briefs’ version of Tetris) — strictly to pay tribute to the game’s potentially therapeutic qualities, of course.