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Encouraging piece in the Boston Globe today, reporting on Boston scientists praising video games for strengthening the brain.    It opens with the reference to President Obama’s call to students to put away their video games, and then draws upon contemporary research to show that games can aid learning:

Video games, it seems, might actually be good for the brain. The very structure of video games makes them ideal tools for brain training.  “Video games are hard,’’ said Eric Klopfer, the director of MIT’s Education Arcade, which studies and develops educational video games.

“People don’t like to play easy games, and games have figured out a way to encourage players to persist at solving challenging problems.’’   The games aren’t just hard – they’re adaptively hard. They tend to challenge people right at the edge of their abilities; as players get better and score more points, they move up to more demanding levels of play. This adaptive challenge is “stunningly powerful’’ for learning, said John Gabrieli, a neuroscientist at MIT.

This is a two-way dynamic: because video games are powerful for learning, we need to both consider further how to employ video games in learning, and also consider how to apply the lessons of video game structures to non-digital learning programs.

Many areas of the brain are positively affected:

Most games involve a huge number of mental tasks, and playing can boost any one of them. Fast-paced, action-packed video games have been shown, in separate studies, to boost visual acuity, spatial perception, and the ability to pick out objects in a scene. Complex, strategy-based games can improve other cognitive skills, including working memory and reasoning.

What’s more, parts of the cortex, the outer layer of their brains responsible for high-level functions, actually got thicker. Several of these regions are associated with visual spatial abilities, planning, and integration of sensory data.

A related, and critical, question is whether gaming can support moral development.  Researchers are also finding that if the game is built to promote positive social behavior, then, yes, it can.

A game is set up to reward certain actions and to punish others. This means they have immense potential to teach children ethics and values, said Scott Seider, an assistant professor of education at Boston University.  Some off-the-shelf games already contain strong prosocial themes; consider The Sims, for instance, or the classic Oregon Trail, which make players responsible for the well-being of other characters and feature characters who take care of one another.