Monday, April 25, 2011

Video Games Improve Motor Functions in Stroke Patients

By Dr. Tony Scinta, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology

Photo Courtesy of RebeccaPollard via Flickr

From the tenacious pink ghost in Pac-man to that last stubborn pig in Angry Birds, video games have always created teeth-gnashing levels of frustration.  However, when they’re not making us curse a blue streak that could peel the paint off of a Nintendo Wii, video games may have something positive to offer.  According to a recent analysis by researchers at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto,  stroke patients who play video games can show up to a five-fold improvement in arm motor function compared to patients who undergo standard physical therapy.

Shockingly, this is not the first time that research has hinted at the potential benefit of playing video games.  To examine this phenomenon, scientists often conduct a “meta-analysis,” which is a super nerdy but incredibly effective technique that combines multiple studies, sometimes conducted over dozens of years, into a single “super analysis.”  One of these meta-analyses, involving seven studies and 384 participants, demonstrated that playing video games is associated with improved visuospatial cognition (Ferguson, 2007), which generally refers to a person’s ability to understand and work within spatial environments.  Parallel parking – or parallel “bumping into fenders,” as some people do it – is an example of a skill that relies on visuospatial abilities.

Game-playing experience also has been tied to other important functions (for example, the ability to attend to a lot of things at once, such as when navigating a busy highway), but those who are rushing to fire up their Xboxes should proceed with a note of caution:  there is no such thing as a free lunch.  Games also have been linked to increased aggression (Anderson et al., 2010), especially in the short term, and few people have ever completed their class assignments with a video game controller in their hands.

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