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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Games children play
Playtime: Gaming may now actually prove to be therapeutic

Twelve-year-old Rahul Mitra of Behala spends hours in front of the computer screen creating families in a video game. He is one of many smitten by the virtual reality bug. His parents, however, are concerned ' they’d rather Rahul spent his time doing something else.

It is the traditional schism between parents and children over the utility of a video game. Children think it’s cool; parents see it as a distraction that keeps a child from studying, without even the obvious benefits of outdoor play. However, a recent study conducted among 100 university undergraduates at the University of York, soon to be published in the Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, says that video gamers consistently out performed their peers in a series of tricky mental tests. The best performers were found to be adept video gamers and were bilingual.

Several psychiatrists in Calcutta deem the study noteworthy and path breaking. Aniruddha Deb, consultant psychiatrist at Crystal Clinic in South Calcutta, believes that it may herald in a new bench mark for assessing a child’s skills, different from the yardsticks in vogue 20 years ago. Deb is of the opinion that children who are avid video gamers could carry the acquired skills into adulthood and refine them.” Visual spatial skills and reaction to sudden stimuli can be vastly improved by playing video games,” he says.

The history of video games is replete with cases of companies trying to improve technology to provide better stimulation for children. Multinational corporations such as Philips and Sony have made video games an integral part of their popular products. Games like Nintendo and Pacman have been smash hits. There are games in which players have to build virtual families or take part in virtual races ranging from rallies to cross country. You can play cricket, football and baseball in a video game, build blocks, go through a maze to rescue a princess and so on and so forth. And almost all video games have different stages with varying complexity.

Parents have, however, been wary of video games, worried that they may affect their children’s eyesight or turn them into couch potatoes. But Gautam Ghosh, a consultant paediatrician at Park Children Centre, is against clubbing all video games under one category. He contends that video games are principally of three categories ' action, problem solving and mixed ' and have varied effects on the multifarious skills of normal and challenged children. “The skills are visual, auditory, of memory, calculation, execution, hand-eye coordination and repetition,” explains Ghosh. The much-maligned action games enable normal children to notice and count objects faster owing to improved spatial attention, he adds.

That video games aid children’s abilities is also endorsed by Debashis Ray, consultant psychiatrist at Apollo Gleneagles Clinic on Calcutta’s Gariahat Road, who believes that formal thought is greatly aided by gaming. Vital brain damage can also be stemmed by indulging in video game activities, asserts Ray. “Quite apart from improving Intelligence Quotient (IQ) both quantitatively and qualitatively, there is convincing medical evidence emerging that video games can also be a fabulous non pharmacological therapeutic option to deal with slow virus diseases and can trigger the activation of the non dominant hemisphere in the brain,” he adds.

There are other medical spin-offs. Attention Deficit Hyper Activity Disorder (ADSD), a very common problem in children, depression and infantile autism can all be assisted by playing video games, recent research papers quoted by city psychiatrists reveal. Children with specific learning disorders can be greatly assisted too. “Hand eye coordination in dyslexic children can be improved by practising video games,” says Rima Mukherjee, consultant psychiatrist at Crystal Clinic.

But at the same time, some psychiatrists feel that the direct application of a foreign study in India may not be totally feasible. J.R. Ram, a practicing psychiatrist at Apollo Gleaneagles Hospital, advises jurisdiction over what games children play since a preoccupation with too many action games could prove counter-productive. And Ronodip Ghosh Roy, consultant psychiatrist at Suraksha Clinic in Phulbagan, stresses that more studies need to be done to assess long term effects.

Some effects can prove beneficial in group surroundings. Video games can change traditional classroom perspectives on learning. Educationists are willing to test the theory that video games provide “edutainment,” a blend of education and entertainment. Indeed the best selling video game of all time is Sims, a game that teaches children family values.

Ayesha Das, programme chairperson of Teacher’s Centre at Loreto House, Middleton Street, in Calcutta recognises the importance of such creative activities in schools. “The revelation of the new study is fantastic and if introduced it could certainly enliven Indian classrooms,” she says.

Is such rationality correct' Absolutely yes, according to Aniruddha Deb. “There is no reason to disbelieve the contention after two generations, exposure to video games in children will lead to improved performance in academics,” he says. The new Canadian study finds support in research done at London University’s Institute of Education and lends credence to the view that the traditional hogwash of any non-academic pursuit, including enjoyment of video games, may only have reflected the antiquated mind set of a conservative generation, he adds.

Rahul Mitra believes that gamers become their own tutors in the attempt to put in their best performance while playing. If performance is the upshot, children reeling under academic pressure are in for good news. Adds Sayan Mukherjee, a 14-year-old student at Methodist School, Dankuni, “Video games help me to concentrate. And I am pretty sure that the concentration developed through playing video games assists me to excel at studies.”

Taha Aman, 15, a student of St Mary’s School in Calcutta, is equally optimistic about the skills that video games hone. “Besides being a great pastime, the fact that I have to use both my hands and my eyes in dealing with a video game helps to develop dexterity,” he says.

So far, so good. But are parents convinced yet'

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