Video games at their best

Last year, Sony and Nintendo both revealed their newest video-game systems to great fanfare, complete with slicker and motion sensors. But not everyone was pleased. An increasingly noisy chorus of critics charge that the video-game industry threatens to transform the kids into drooling zombies or out-and-out sociopaths. These video-games are raunchy, blood-soaked, unleashing a silent epidemic of media desensitization and trying to steal the innocence of the children.

Most video games aren’t violent or racy. The industry’s self-imposed rating system is informative; featuring not only the rating but also a description of what might be offensive in the game.

Video games can also exercise the brain in remarkable ways. I recently spent too many night hours working my way through X-Men: Legends II: The Rise of Apocalypse. Figuring out how to deploy a particular grouping of heroes (each of whom has special powers and weakness): using trial and error and hunches to learn the game’s rules and solve its puzzles; weighing short-term and long-term goals—the experience was mentally exhausting and, when my team finally beat the Apocalypse, exhilarating.

A growing number of innovations recognize the intellectual benefits of gaming and seek to use video games for educational or therapeutic ends. The Serious Games Initiative got its start in 2002, when the US Army released America’s Army, a free online game that allows players to “live” the Army. More than five million people have registered to play. Venture capital and philanthropic dollars are now pouring into Serious Games projects in health care, math and government and corporate training. One encouraging early result is Free Drive, a game that distracts children suffering from chronic pain or undergoing painful operations in real life with a calming underwater virtual reality.

With the next generation of high-powered consoles on the market or soon to appear, gamers will have even richer, more complex virtual environments to explore. Video games are popular culture at its best. Critics would do better to drop the hysterical laments and pick up a joystick.

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