The Psychophysiology Laboratory and Biofeedback Clinic at East Carolina University, North Carolina, is in the subterranean bowels of a former gymnasium.
This is where Carmen V. Russoniello, lab director and a professor in the College of Health and Human Performance at the university, is trying to determine whether some video games can be good for you.
“I’ve always thought there’s something special about the concept of fun; it’s one of the most powerful words in the English language,” Russoniello, a former president of the American Therapeutic Recreation Association, said in North Carolina recently, just yards from a wall covered with diplomas, professional citations and the medals he earned in the Vietnam war.
“As scientists,” he said, “we know there is a cascade of beneficial biochemical and hormonal effects in people when they are engaged in an activity they perceive as fun. What we’re seeing here is that some video games fit into that mould and that some games can have a positive health effect on people.”
PopCap’s games are simple and non-violent
Formally, Russoniello’s research project is called A Randomized, Controlled Study of the Effectiveness of PopCap Video Games in Reducing Stress and Improving Mood. Informally, that means that the professor is in the process of bringing 120 test subjects in, wiring them up like Woody Allen in Sleeper (1973), sitting them in front of a computer and then measuring their brainwaves and heartbeats as they play simple games such as Bejeweled, Bookworm Adventures and Peggle. PopCap, the Seattle company that makes those games, is paying the $23,500 (around Rs9.4 lakh) cost of the study. Russoniello intends to announce his results later this year.
The prime audiences for casual games such as PopCap’s are middle-aged women and office workers seeking diversion during interminable conference calls. So, the play is meant to be thoroughly non-violent, uncontroversial and simple. What Russoniello’s study appears to be doing is backing up with empirical data what the subjective experience already conveys.
The results would almost certainly be very different if the test subjects played violent combat or horror-survival games such as those in the Manhunt, Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty series, just as you would expect film buffs to have different physiological responses while watching Rambo or Saw III (2006) as opposed to The Little Mermaid (1989). That’s probably why you don’t see makers of violent, M-rated games underwriting academic studies of their products.
In Sleeper, one of the many recurrent jokes is that in the future, scientists will finally figure out that all of the things people thought were dangerous back in the benighted 20th century, such as red meat, are actually good for you. Russoniello, however, is not a comedian. When he starts talking about serious physiological concepts such as “heart rate variability” and “sympathetic and parasympathetic components of the autonomic nervous system”, it can be tough to keep up.
To cut through all the high-powered science jargon, I became a test subject.
Naturally, before being wired up, I had to sign a consent form. Next came the questionnaires. “How many hours have you spent playing video games in the last month?” Thankfully, this was not an open-ended question, and I was able to get away with circling the “75 or more hours” option. “On a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 representing no stress, and 10 representing extreme stress, how stressful do you become when playing video games?”
Once again, I dodged a bullet because the question was not, “How stressful do you become when playing video games while a significant other berates you for ‘wasting your life’?”
Then came the fun part. Russoniello’s assistant clipped a heart-rate monitor to my left ear and attached brainwave wires to my scalp with some cool electrolytic gel. Then I settled in for a nice 20-minute session of Peggle, the hit new PopCap game. As I bounced my little ball around the screen, it hardly occurred to me to ask just why I was having fun.
Video games are no more monolithic in their content and message than films or books, and no one should interpret Russoniello’s initial results as any sort of sweeping judgement that video games are the next wonder drug. But he may be on to something when he says, “People think fun is frivolous, but it actually turns out that fun is healthy.”
Most gamers, or Woody Allen in Sleeper, couldn’t agree more.
©2008/The New York Times
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