The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston (UTMB) is in the top tier when it comes to robotic surgeries. But when UTMB’s doctors training to be surgeons performed robotic simulations side by side with video game-playing high school and college students, the young gamers actually beat them out. The results were presented at a conference on minimally invasive gynecology [pdf] in November.
Screenshot of Civilization IV, a later version
of the game that MIT’s computer played.
What’s the News: Many video gamers scoff at the idea of actually reading the instruction manual for a game. But a manual can not only teach you how to play a game, it can also give you the basics of language—that is, if you’re a machine-learning computer. Researchers at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab have now designed a computer system that can learn the meaning of certain words by playing complex games like Civilization II and comparing on-screen information to the game’s instruction manual.
Video games might do more than get you off your fanny.
What’s the News: Getting in shape with Wii Bowling was just the beginning: scientists are now studying whether videogames that use breath as a controller can encourage healthy habits in children with cystic fibrosis.
What’s the News: Just as the real-world economy is crawling out of a recession, the virtual economy based around online games like World of Warcraft is booming to the tune of $3 billion per year. This money is actually making a measurable economic impact in developing countries, providing up to 100,000 jobs in China and Vietnam. According to Tim Kelly, the Lead ICT Policy Specialist of infoDev, a technology development finance program of the World Bank and IFC, “This could significantly boost local economies and support further development of digital infrastructure in regions such as Africa and southeast Asia.”
Today, video games have their day in court. The Supreme Court is going to hear arguments of a California law meant to restrict the sale of extremely violent video games to minors, and to punish those who do so by fine.
A 2005 California law prohibits selling or renting such games to minors based on legislative findings that they stimulate “feelings of aggression,” reduce “activity in the frontal lobes of the brain” and promote “violent antisocial or aggressive behavior.” The law never took effect because lower courts found it violated free-expression rights. In a 2009 ruling, a federal appeals court in San Francisco said the state provided no credible research showing that playing violent videogames harmed minors, and found the law was an unconstitutional effort “to control a minor’s thoughts.” [Wall Street Journal]
Despite the fact that this law was stuck down multiple times and so never went into effect—and the fact that the Supreme Court declined to hear related First Amendment cases—the court accepted this one.
“Halo: Reach,” the newest installment in the long-running Halo video game saga, comes out today. While players are rampaging around in the digital universe and slaughtering everything in sight, they might be doing something else too: improving their decision-making skills.
Action-packed video games, including first-shooters like those in the Halo franchise, can lead people to make better and quicker rapid-fire decision, according to a Current Biology study by Daphne Bavelier and colleagues.
“What’s surprising in our study is that action games improved probabilistic inference not just for the act of gaming, but for unrelated and rather dull tasks,” Bavelier says. [Science News]
There’s nothing like a flashy statistic to get some attention, and scientists at the University of California, San Diego did just that by calculating the total amount of data consumed in the United States in 2008. The final tally? About 3.6 zettabytes (or 3.6 billion terabytes). That number works out to about 34 gigabytes per American per day. Put on paper, [the 3.6-zettabyte total] would be equal to 7-foot stacks of thick paperback novels placed side-by-side across the entire United States, including Alaska, said Roger Bohn, the study’s author and director of the university’s Global Information Industry Center [San Diego Union-Tribune].
Since the researchers excluded things people read for their work from the study, computers are only third in the total amount of time spent per information source. Most of this time is spent in front of screens watching TV-related content, averaging nearly five hours of daily consumption. Second is radio, which the average American listens to for about 2.2 hours a day [The New York Times]. Even without work hours, the researchers say, Americans log 1.3 trillion hours of information-gathering in a year, be it from print, online, TV, radio, or other sources.
Go ahead, let your teenagers play another few minutes of Tetris, that simple-yet-addictive puzzle game; it may well be good for their brain. Researchers have new evidence that playing Tetris makes a developing brain more efficient and thicker in certain regions.
The small study was conducted by neuroscientist Richard Haier, who was one of the first neuroscientists to explore the effects of video games on the brain. Back in 1992, Haier used brain scans to discover that some parts of the brain actually used less glucose as the players became more skilled at the game. The “Tetris effect” illustrated how video-game training could make brains work more efficiently – an idea that eventually led to a whole host of brain-training games [MSNBC]. For the new study, Haier updated his work by using newer, more sophisticated brain scanning technology to look for changes in the brains of adolescent girls after three months of Tetris playing. Adolescent girls were chosen because their brains were still developing, and because they were presumed to have less experience with video games than boys.
Some kids lie and steal to get an opportunity to play a thrilling video game, while others say they have to spend an ever increasing amount of time playing games to get the same level of enjoyment, and feel irritable when they can’t play. All these behaviors, recorded in a new survey of young gamers, are actually symptoms of addiction to video games, psychologist Douglas Gentile argues. “I think we’re at the same place now with video gaming as we were with alcoholism 40 years ago,” said Gentile, noting that decades of research finally showed that alcoholism is a disease [HealthDay News].
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, surveyed more than 1,000 American kids ranging in age from 8 to 18. Gentile used a questionnaire adapted from a set of questions used to diagnose compulsive gambling in adults, and found that almost one in ten respondents showed signs of “pathological gaming,” meaning that they exhibited at least six of the 11 criteria of addiction. Gentile claims that he started his research with doubts about the possibility of addiction. “I thought this was parental histrionics — that kids are playing a lot and parents don’t understand the motivation, so they label it an addiction,” he said. “It turns out that I was wrong” [Washington Post].
Who says shoot-‘em-up video games are a waste of time? A new study has found that playing action video games dramatically increases the players’ ability to detect subtle shades of gray. Says lead Daphne Bavelier: “Normally, improving contrast sensitivity means getting glasses or eye surgery — somehow changing the optics of the eye…. [But when] people play action games, they’re changing the brain’s pathway responsible for visual processing. These games push the human visual system to the limits and the brain adapts to it,” Bavelier said [Reuters]. The study also found that more sedate games that don’t require precisely aimed actions, like The Sims 2, do not confer a similar benefit.
The researchers say that eye doctors could one day write prescriptions for Nintendo: The finding raises the prospect that people with amblyopia, which affects contrast perception, could be treated with games. A trial has begun to test that theory. Amblyopia, sometimes known as “lazy eye”, affects around 3 per cent of people in western populations and happens when the brain fails to correctly register signals from one eye [New Scientist]. Contrast sensitivity, which is crucial for activities such as night driving, is also one of the first elements of vision to be affected by aging.