Maybe it's time to think about becoming an expatriate. Those who still harbor illusions about the accuracy of what pols and the popular media tell us about "geeks," gaming and cyber-culture ought to read one of the most interesting series of studies yet on computer games and the young, published this weekend in the Times of London. The government-funded study by the British Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), finds that computer games are giving a "young Britons a level of co-ordination and powers of concentration equivalent to those observed in top-level athletes." Beyond that, gamers are smarter, more likely to go to college, have more friends, read more, and get better-paying jobs than non-gamers.
Do not look for the results of this study to be reported on your local evening news in the U.S., or on the front page of any newspaper. It will not be there. Those spots are reserved for frantic stories about pedophiles, pornographers and online identity thieves.
So much for the popular view of gamers as oddballs and outcasts, cut off from the world and deprived of healthy social interaction and intellectual activity. That's the portrait widely promulgated in American media and invoked by U.S. politicians, from so-called liberal Democrats like Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, to Republicans like Attorney General Ashcroft and the President.
The British researchers, perhaps unencumbered by uniquely American pandering to so-called "moral" political interests, see it differently. "People who play games regularly seem to develop a mental state that we have seen before only in serious athletes or professionals such as astronauts, whose life depends on concentration and co-ordination," found Jo Bryce, who led the team. "Their minds and bodies work together much better than those of most other people."
Bryce conducted her research by visiting gamers, usually during regional or national competitions around England, and administering a series of psychological tests and questionnaires to nearly 100 of them. The results were then compared with those from similiar tests of athletes and others.
A separate study by the British government's Home Office indicated that those who regularly play computer games when they are young are more likely than non-gamers to go to college and get a high-paying job. They also, said the Home Office study, tended to be more intelligent. The Times also reported that Mark Griffiths, a psychologist at Nottingham Trent University and an expert in computer gaming, found in a study of 800 children that those who play games "moderately" -- generally defined as no more than two hours a day -- had more friends, were better adjusted, and tended to read more.
This rational approach to kids and gaming -- a government actually providing useful information to parents and educators -- stands in jarring contrast to the post-Columbine hysteria still prevalent in America, which holds that gaming commonly leads to addictive, anti-social behavior, even sometimes to violence.
The British researchers did discover that children who use computers to excess could, in fact, develop emotional disorders. One 16-year-old boy spent 70 hours a week at his computer and suffered severe psychological problems. But then, we don't really need a study to tell us that. The same would be true of bicyclists or chess players.
More typically, the ESRC study found, subjects were averaging approximately 18 hours a week on computer games; interestingly, these kids were spending similiar amounts of time on sports or social activities.
"They seemed able to focus on what they were doing much better than other people and also had better general co-ordination," said one of the researchers. "The skills they learned on computers seem to transfer to the real world."
As gaming spreads and becomes mainstream, such findings become important. They are valuable and useful -- not only to gamers, who already know much of this stuff, but to public policy. Parents, employers and educators often appear woefully misinformed about gaming's true and increasingly significant effects. More and more, these studies suggest, parents should be encouraging their kids to game, not to stop. You have to particularly appreciate the comparison to superjocks. The nerds' revenge only gets sweeter.