So if playing video games can lead to beneficial brain changes, does this positively affect behaviour? Gentile set out to find out by testing the effects of playing "pro-social" games on young people in the US, Singapore and Japan. The children and teenagers in each study were more likely to help others in real life or in simulated tasks if they played the games where the characters co-operated, helped one another, or pitched in to clean a virtual neighbourhood. When American students were asked to select 11 puzzles for a partner to complete and were told their partners would get $10 gift vouchers if they completed 10 of them, the pro-social game players were much more likely to choose easier puzzles than those who played violent games.
"Video games are neither inherently good nor bad," says Gentile. "When we play games we want to be affected in some way, otherwise it would be boring. What we now know is that across cultures and age groups computer games can either cause problems or be beneficial, depending on its content."
Gentile’s findings are supported by a study conducted by Tobias Greitemeyer, now at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. He asked 46 German students to play Lemmings, in which players must protect groups of rodents from dangers, or Tetris. They were then asked to complete three unfinished stories that included one about a driver and a cyclist who narrowly avoid a collision; another about two friends, one of whom is unapologetic despite being always late; and a third one about a customer speaking to a restaurant manager after waiting an hour to be served and having food spilt on him. People who played Lemmings suggested less aggressive endings.
Questions still remain about how long any effects could last. Gentile recently completed a study involving 3,000 schoolchildren, studied over three years. He expects to publish the results later this year. "What we are finding is that pro-social games affect children's sense of empathy," he says. "As they become better at noticing the feelings and reactions of others, and act in more helpful and caring ways within games, this seems to affect how in tune they are with others, and how they behave in real-life. With violent games we see the exact opposite."
Taken as a whole, the research poses a problem for those hoping that video games can provide a path to smarter, kinder young people. Action games are high among the best-sellers, but they involve a lot more fighting and killing than caring and sharing.
This does not put those in the field off. Bavelier, for example, recently received a US National Science Foundation grant to create, in collaboration with educational games company E-line Media, an action game for 8-to-12 year olds that improves their ability to rapidly estimate numbers – a skill that correlates with improved mathematics performance.
Meanwhile Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is leading a project to develop two games to help 11-to-14 year olds develop greater empathy, co-operation, mental focus, and self control. In Tenacity players progress through the game by keeping track of their own breathing, which helps children develop mindfulness. In Crystals of Kaydor, players must understand the emotions of aliens and respond helpfully to win. The games are being tested in randomised trials that began in May.
Davidson is well aware that many previous efforts to develop games that are good for us have resulted in titles that players don't want to play. But he knocks those failures up to academics who don't have the required skills or resources to develop an irresistible game.
“We have had a team of 12, including some of the best game designers in the country, working on these games for a year,” he says. “I believe you can have fun and have beneficial effects at the same time." Media entertainment businesses have also decided the industry would benefit from greater links with neuroscientists and psychologists, and that by collaborating with academics they could to bring beneficial and therapeutic games to market.
Ultimately, however, it will be down to consumers, or their parents, to decide whether they play the games scientists say are good for them. "Our brains are constantly being shaped by the actions we engage in and our environment, and most of that influence is unwitting," says Davidson. "Playing games today is like being in a rudderless boat. Gaming presents us with an opportunity to take greater control over the shaping of our own minds and brains. I think going forward most parents will want their children in boats with rudders."