2012-03-09 09:00:00

Video Games are Healthy? Thoughts from a Recovering Gamer

Editor's Note: Recent research indicates that playing video games incessantly may just be good for your health – increasing hand-eye coordination, night vision and even boosting creativity. New America Media asked Luis Pacheco, a youth reporter at The kNOw Youth Media in Fresno and an avid gamer, to weigh in on the question of whether video games are in fact, healthy.

FRESNO, Calif. -- When I was a sophomore in high school, the thing that mattered most to me was my education. That is, until I went to a Black Friday sale and bought myself a PS3 gaming console. It quickly became an addiction. I just couldn’t lay off the video games.

On a typical weekday, I would come home from school around 4 p.m. I had at least a good one to three hours of homework to do every night, and the rest of my time I spent playing video games. Weekends were even worse, because I had plenty of time to play. I would wake up and start playing around 6 a.m., and I wouldn't stop until noon.

My mom noticed that I was spending more time playing video games than doing my homework, and that it was becoming a bad habit for me. So she started telling me that video games were unhealthy, and that it would ruin my vision.

Some scientists apparently now believe that gaming actually improves vision and can even make us smarter and more creative. Jonathan Castro, a 16-year-old who plays video games like Call of Duty, would agree.

"In the 8th grade I wore glasses with no improvement (in my vision) until I played Call of Duty 4," he said. An eyeglass wearer since middle school, Castro claims that when he went back to the optometrist after playing Call of Duty 4, he discovered that his vision had improved.

Nevertheless, I still think my mom was right about video games being unhealthy – some of the top-selling titles like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Uncharted being the worst – and my reasoning has nothing to do with developing better vision or hand-eye coordination.

Call of Duty, one of the most popular video game series, is classified as a First-Person Shooter (FPS) game, which involves a lot of violence, blood and killing. The game is appropriately rated "M" for mature, but that doesn’t stop many parents and older siblings from buying these M-rated games for their children or younger siblings. That's the unhealthy part: When it comes to gun violence in video games, some youth can get confused, and it can lead to making bad decisions in real life.

All FPS games are about tactical strategy, so I can see how that could be a healthy mental exercise, but certainly when the content is full of graphic killing it can’t be all healthy.

Common sense also tells us that excessive amounts of time sitting inactive in front of a television or computer screen playing video games means less time for healthy physical activities like after-school sports. Even worse, some video games, like Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, which was released last November, actually encourage gamers to buy junk food by offering players special game codes - the codes will let you "level up" faster - that can only be acquired by purchasing certain brands of chips and sodas, like Mountain Dew or Doritos. This being the case, it doesn't seem a stretch to say that excessive video gaming can also lead to obesity.

Another clearly unhealthy aspect of gaming has to do with time. A lot of teenagers play online, and unless you're a great gamer, it takes a massive amount of time to “level up” – to win and advance to the next stage of the game. But if you’re putting so many hours into video games, you’re probably not going to be spending as much time on other things, like homework or household chores. Your brain becomes fast in a video game sense, but slow in reality. That's just how it is, and unless you're playing an educational game, your knowledge of facts begins to decrease when you're playing an FPS or a role-playing game (RPG).

Video game addiction can also affect your daily routine. If you're the type of person to go to sleep early, wake up super early and do well at school, all of that can go downhill fast -- like it did for me. Once I got deep into video game playing, I started waking up late for school and wouldn’t get up in time unless I had someone waking me up. I stopped paying attention in class. Video games were the only thing on my mind, controlling all I thought about. I started getting sleepy in the afternoon. I repeated this unhealthy routine, day after day.

It’s not a stretch to say that in the most extreme cases, games can even increase the probability of a student dropping out of school. When video games become the only thing you want to do in life, school just loses its attraction.

Even though experts now say there are some health benefits to gaming, because of my personal experiences I still believe heavy video game use is a bad thing overall.

Some parents, like my own mother, understand that and are willing to tell their children that video games are unhealthy. The problem is, youth don’t always want to listen.

But for me, the words have finally hit home. This past weekend, I finally sold my PS3 console for $200. Since I feel less healthy when I game, I recently made up my mind to focus on the things that will improve my future, like going to college. After years of gaming, I’ve decided that I want a better future for myself.

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