Time to play: This is your (better) brain on video games

Video gaming is often perceived to be a waste of time and an addictive habit that takes away focus from important tasks. Well, this presumably unnecessary hobby might have unexpected side effects: the education of impressionable minds and the improvement of certain skills. And I’m not just talking about the nice and neat games that fall under the category of educational games. Badass shooters and flashy action titles may have a positive influence on our selective visual attention.

Daphne Bavelier and Christopher Shawn Green of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester conducted a study in 2003 in which video gamers and non-gamers went through a series of four experiments to see if video gaming improved visual attention. Throughout these experiments, the gamer group achieved better results. In a final, fifth experiment, the non-gamers were divided into two groups and were each instructed to play one specific video game one hour a day for 10 days. Afterwards, their visual attention was tested again, and it had improved according to their video game’s demands. The study concluded that video gaming is “capable of radically altering visual attentional processing.” Since then, Bavelier and Green have conducted similar studies that show that video gaming can have positive effects.

But even without the brain-altering effects, games can be useful for honing all kinds of skills. First of all, video gaming — especially with a PC — requires at least some knowledge of technology. Every time you start a new game, you have to become familiar with the game’s menu and layout, which is a learning process in itself. Games in foreign languages can also be helpful for building a new vocabulary. And many games come with modification tools such as level editors or consoles, which allow you to enter commands to change the game play to your liking. These tools might even be the stepping stones to a career in game development and design.

Overall, video games may not be as useless as they are perceived to be because they require players to react to a new environment and learn everything necessary to be able to play.

My game recommendation this week is not an action title, but it offers a ton of new, exciting information thanks to its ties to Wikipedia. The game is called The Wiki Game. It challenges players to find articles on the famous website while racing against the clock. Even though the game uses Wikipedia, the creators aren’t affiliated with the online encyclopedia.

The Wiki Game gives players a starting article and asks them to reach a target article in less than one-and-a-half minutes using only links to get from one article to another. The game offers five different modes in which you can compete directly against other players: in the “speed race,” the first player to find the article wins regardless of how many clicks were needed; in “least clicks,” the person with the shortest path wins; in the mode “six degrees of Wikipedia,” players must use exactly six clicks to get from the starting article to the winning article; and in “five clicks to Jesus,” players need to find the Jesus article with five or fewer clicks. Finally, in the “no United States” mode, players are not allowed to use the United States article to bail them out. “No United States” is not meant to be an insult but rather a challenge, because Wikipedia’s United States article is a portal to all fields imaginable and therefore an easy way to win.

The only downside to the game is the varying loading times. Sometimes you might lose simply because the game is not loading fast enough, and even the starting article may appear more quickly for some players than others on the same network, which feels unfair.

Apart from that, The Wiki Game is really simple, highly addictive and very informative. You get to scroll through articles you normally wouldn’t go through, and when you finish a round quickly, you might have some time left to read a bit more about the topic you ended on. It is available as a free browser game or for $0.99 on the App Store for iPhones.

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