Eyes gazing straight ahead, backs caved, thumbs ceaselessly mashing buttons: It's a sight to make any parent cringe. Especially when the game involves rapid gunfire, throat-slitting, body-splitting and other gruesome acts.
The drawbacks of gaming are well known. Studies have linked video games to depression, addiction and decreased empathy. Then there are the links to aggression and high-risk behaviour, and the accompanying unhealthy eating habits and sedentary lifestyle. And that's not to mention the repugnant aspect of maiming and killing for kicks.
But what's often lost in the discourse is the fact that playing video games has an upside.
That's right, video games may not be all bad for kids. In fact, studies show games can be powerful brain-training tools that can improve such cognitive skills as visual attention, concentration, navigation, multitasking and task switching, all while simultaneously increasing speed and accuracy. Some researchers believe the right kind of game can have enormous educational value, and that playing offers a mental workout that can prepare kids for life off-screen.
What's most surprising about some of the research, though, is the type of game that's best for the brain. If you're thinking along the lines of Lumosity, guess again. The answer: violent video games.
"They are all the games where you have to chase the zombies, kill the bad guys, war games or things like that – first-person or third-person shooter games," says Daphne Bavelier, a brain scientist who leads the cognitive neuroscience lab at the University of Geneva.
To find out what's behind the constructive effect of destructive games, she's developing a nonviolent action video game to test which features are responsible for the positive effects.
While most studies have looked for correlations between video games and behaviour, a specially designed child-friendly game might make it possible to directly observe the effect of gaming on the brain. She expects a few surprises along the way. Bavelier has already discovered that playing can improve basic vision; she's open to seeing how gaming develops skills that can be applied elsewhere.
The positive effects of gaming aren't limited to cognitive ability. A University of Oxford study by experimental psychologist Andrew K. Przybylski, published in the August, 2014, issue of the journal Pediatrics, found that less than an hour of gaming a day was associated with pro-social behaviour and higher life satisfaction compared to kids who didn't play. The opposite was true, however, for those who played for more than three hours a day.
Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist who runs a cognitive neuroscience lab at the University of California, San Francisco, sees some benefits to video gaming. He found that playing a non-commercial racing game improved cognitive control and multitasking of 65- to 80-year-olds, and that the training extended beyond the game to positively influence sustained attention and working memory.
Another study, this one from Germany, concluded that playing Super Mario 64 for at least 30 minutes a day for two months led to an increase in grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and cerebellum, which are involved with working memory, spatial navigation, strategic planning and motor skills.
"In general, I think that all games that provide a complex environment that needs to be explored may have similar effects," says Simone Kuhn, lead author of the Super Mario study and a senior researcher at Berlin's Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
Kuhn has also found that playing logic games, platform games (such as Super Mario 64) and third-person shooter games (where the avatar is visible on screen, as in Resident Evil) were all correlated with an increase in grey matter in the entorhinal cortex, which is a memory and navigation centre. But she also said playing action-based role-play games and ball games actually had a negative correlation with grey matter.
Still, many experts think the negatives outweigh the positives. Veronique Bohbot, a researcher at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Montreal, says gaming leads to short-term gains but long-term loss, pointing to research that found a positive correlation between gaming and volume of the striatum, the part of the brain that balances movement and motivation.
"The striatum is an amazing, powerful system: It helps me learn to get things done instead of thinking about all the details," she says. But, she adds, using the striatum too much, too early, isn't good: "When people use their striatum, they have a tendency to do more drugs, drink more alcohol and smoke more cigarettes."
Bohbot also says there is a negative correlation between the striatum and the hippocampus, responsible for cognitive strategies, and she adds that because video games can boost the striatum, they consequently may be dampening down the hippocampus.
Last month, a major U.S. study – this one looking at more than 5,000 fifth-graders – found that two or more hours a day of playing violent video games was associated with depression. Other recent studies have linked gaming with aggression and high-risk behaviour, as well as a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating habits.
Douglas Gentile, a psychology professor at Iowa State University who studies how video games affect behaviour and physiology, says that the positive and negative effects of video games aren't mutually exclusive. "I don't think those are at all competing; those can happen at once," he says.
Bavelier points out video games aren't all of equal quality, and differences between individual gamers may influence reactions.
Like Bavelier, Gazzaley moonlights as a video-game developer – his lab is building five therapeutic mobile video games from scratch. "We think that these games will be able to improve how our brains process information, and make us smarter," he says. "Using all of the special mechanics and design and art and music and story that go into high-level game development, and also using our understanding of neuroscience, we can do better than a consumer game would do by accident."
Most parents don't have the time to wait for these games to be released. Chances are their kids are clamouring for Advanced Warfare, the next title to be launched in the Call of Duty series.
Where should parents draw the line? Playing video games may not be worth the risk for very young children, because their brains are still undergoing major development, or for kids who already show signs of behaviours that may be exacerbated by gaming – aggression, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and anti-social behaviour.
Similarly, it's too soon to start treating commercial video games as educational materials – they were designed to entertain, and their effects are not entirely understood. But the potential is there.
"I think that we will see a whole new field of therapeutic and educational tools in the form of video games," Gazzaley says. "The learning impact is going to be incredibly dependent on the game – and on the person playing it as well."
How do games help your brain?
The effects of video-gaming depend on the duration and frequency of game-playing. Research suggests less is better – one study found that less than an hour of daily play may be good for pro-social behaviour – and that distributing play over time is preferable.
Commercial games are made to entertain. Researchers are still working to design games that have intentional rather than incidental positive effects on learning. Game companies do rate their products for suitability with letters such as T for teen, but Gentile says only 6 per cent of parents think these ratings are accurate. The best way to really know how much violence is in a game is to try it yourself first.
Action video games are said to improve visual attention because the players are always on the lookout for something jumping out to attack them. But this concept could be remodelled to exclude violence. For example, players could be on the constant lookout for magic tokens that appear suddenly and then dissolve. Virtual navigation while playing could be used to exercise spatial cognition.
Playing a game with friends or as part of an online group, such as in World of Warcraft guild, may be better than playing in isolation. The positive teamwork aspect of multiplayer games might counterbalance some of the negative effects of participating in virtual violence. A game that entails finding solutions for complex problems might also impart problem-solving skills.
The kind of controller – whether it's a Wii remote or a mouse and keyboard – influences learning. The more the mechanics mirror reality, the more skills learned from the game could transfer to real life. In this way, video games could help people warm up for technical motor tasks. Some research has found laparoscopic surgeons were faster and more accurate at operation-like surgery tests after they played video games for several hours a week.