Video Games: A Force for Good?

Video games are not just about reaching high scores or blowing off steam after a long day at work or school. The $10-billion-a-year interactive entertainment industry is also finding that games can be a tool for good -- from healing your mind and body to solving world problems.
The latest positive pursuits in games are as diverse as burning calories, fighting cancer and tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"We've known for a while that games can sharpen memory and improve hand-eye coordination, but they can also be used to teach problem-solving skills, increase our awareness of world issues, help with social phobias and can even treat those with serious illnesses," says Ben Sawyer, co-founder and director of the Games for Health Project, an organization that brings together medical professionals, researchers and gamemakers to explore new ways to improve health care practice and policy.
"What we're realizing now is that gaming, as a medium, has become more than just entertainment."
Among the two dozen or more games scheduled to be on display at the Games for Health Conference, Sept. 28-29 in Baltimore, are Re-Mission, a game that gives cancer patients a chance to blast malignant cells; Food Force, about the United Nations' struggles in delivering food to needy parts of the world; and Peacemaker, a game about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Gaming has the capacity to teach us that problems are multifaceted," Sawyer says. "This is a clear case of learning by doing. The U.N. game, for example, can show you what an organization is all about -- and let's face it, it's far more effective than a pamphlet."
Video games clearly have a powerful effect on gamers, says David Walsh, president of the National Institute for Media and the Family.
"The really good ones tend to be very, very addictive. But these games can be good teachers. We just have to pay attention to what they are teaching," he says. "As the industry becomes more mature, hopefully the creative possibilities will be applied to more positive themes."
On popular video systems, games that exercise the mind and body have become big hits. Konami has sold more than 4million Dance Dance Revolution games in North America since 2001. (Players connect a dance mat to a video game console, choose a song and step on the correct arrows according to the on-screen instructions.)
Nintendo has sold more than 4 million copies worldwide of Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day since its 2005 launch and more than 250,000 copies of Big Brain Academy in the two months it has been available in the USA.
These two games for the portable Nintendo DS system offer brain-sharpening activities that range from reading and counting exercises to word games and drawing challenges to Sudoku puzzles.
Their appeal? "Video games serve as relaxing getaways as you become temporarily entranced by them, melting away the days' stressors," says Carl Arinoldo, a Long Island, N.Y.-based psychologist.

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