Can Pac-Man and Other Video Games Improve Health?

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This Saturday, Pac-Man, the most successful coin-operated video game in history, will turn 30 years old. Since its introduction, video game technology has significantly improved to include action games, virtual reality games, and 3-D games.

There are obvious downsides for children and adults who engage in hours on end of video game play. A sedentary life leads to obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic illnesses. However, not all video game play is harmful and some games can even be healthy tools for certain disease states. As with all things, moderation is key to preventing video game play from becoming a negative experience.

Some of the positive impacts on health that video games can have include improving manual dexterity and computer literacy. Some games are used in rehabilitation programs for those with lifelong or temporary physical and/or cognitive disabilities. Action games may also improve vision, according to a recent study funded by the National Eye Institute and the Office of Naval Research, by increasing the ability to see fine contrast differences.

See also: PlayStation Video Game Improves Hand Function in Children with Cerebral Palsy and Wii Video Games Help Recovering Stroke Patients.

Children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may benefit from games that provide feedback and rewards. A game specifically created for ADHD patients by the US Department of Education, called FFFBI Academy, has seven parts, each of which focuses on a different symptom and helps the child work on scenarios to cope with those feelings.

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Three-dimensional virtual reality video games have recently been shown to reduce anxiety and pain associated with a variety of medical procedures and conditions, such as blood draws or chemotherapy sessions.

The Robert Wood Foundation is a major supporter of “Games for Health”, a project founded in 2004 to support efforts in video-game technology in health and health care. Their 6th annual conference will be held next week in Boston. Topics will included exergaming, physical therapy, biofeedback, health behavior education and change, and cognitive health.

See also: Wii Sports Games Reduce Depression in Older Adults and Some Wii Games Endorsed by the American Heart Association

Because some types of video games, including those that are violent or contain adult situations, are harmful to children and teens, the Palo Alto Medical Foundation offers these tips to parents for monitoring video game use:

• Know the rating of the video games your child plays (see the Entertainment Software Rating Board website for more information).
• Do not install video game equipment in your child's bedroom.
• Set limits on how often and how long your child is allowed to play video games.
• Monitor all of your child's media consumption -- video games, television, movies and Internet.
• Supervise your child's Internet use -- there are now many "video games" available for playing online.
• Take the time to discuss with your children the games they are playing or other media they are watching. Ask your children how they feel about what they observe in these video games, television programs or movies. This is an opportunity to share your feelings and grow closer with your child.
• Share with other parents information about certain games or ideas for helping each other in parenting.

By the way, if you just need a simple diversion and want to relieve some childhood memories, Google has launched it’s own “Pac-Man” game to celebrate the anniversary of the little yellow guy. The Google search page will have a playable game for 48 hours beginning midnight on May 22 and ending at midnight on May 24th. Need longer to play? There are also iPhone and iPad versions available.

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