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Health, Technology, The Mind

Mario turns 30! How playing video games can be good for us (sometimes)

Super MarioHappy Birthday Mario! The large-nosed plumber, famous as Nintendo video game character who jumps down pipes and collects mushrooms, has just turned just turned thirty*. And he now the iconic video game star has a real reason to jump for joy. Research is increasingly showing us that video games could be good for us, which means all of us could benefit from a bit of Mario-time every once in a while.

Originally a tiny 130 pixel graphic, the mustachioed 1985 superhero went on to spawn a franchise worth over $10 million and in 1993 inspired the first Hollywood movie to feature a video game. (Called Mario Bros. it stared Bob Hoskins, but was awful.) Today’s photorealistic games are a far cry from these early days and are no longer the preserve of closeted teenage boys. People of all ages play computer games in their front rooms, often together. This hasn’t stopped parents and doctors being concerned, however, and photorealistic action games tend to cause the most controversy.

Of course, it doesn’t take a researcher to tell you that violent video games have the potential to cause aggression (they do) or that children who spend too much time staring at a screen will be unfit and put on weight (they will). In moderation, however, science now shows us that specific game types can offer many benefits: modern puzzle-solving games can improve our mental faculties and hand-eye co-ordination, while three dimensional adventure games can improve spatial awareness. Researchers from Germany, for example, have shown that 30 minutes playing a 3D Mario game for a two month period led to growth in the problem-solving areas of the brain. Meanwhile Minecraft – a game requiring players to build landscapes with virtual Lego-like blocks – can aid planning skills many schools use it as an educational aid.

Crucially, it is those who are the least likely to pick up a joystick who stand to gain the most: a dose of digital problem-solving in the elderly appears to slow age-related metal decline and active video games that require players to stand (such as Nintendo’s Wii Fit games) can aid balance and are useful in a rehabilitation setting.

And yet for all of video games’ potential, they are best served in small doses: children today spend twice as much time in front of a screen than they did twenty years ago, and those who play games for more than two hours per day have worse health and increased blood pressure than those who play less. Furthermore, 90 percent of games rated as appropriate for children 10 years or older contain violence that asks them to intentionally harm others, so parents would be wise to check what disc is in the games console.

Mario shouldn’t be too concerned about that though. The last time I checked, the worst thing he ever did was jump on a cartoon monster’s head; which when a beautiful princess’s life at stake is a completely understandable thing to do.

Thanks for reading – all opinions expressed are my own. Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.

*’Mario’ actually first appeared in the game Donkey Kong Jr. in 1982, where he was the villain. Before that he was called ‘jumpman’. But we don’t like to talk about those dark times though.just turned thirty

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About Stuart Farrimond

I love writing about science and health subjects. Strange, because I also teach the same things. I trained as a medical doctor before turning my hand to other things. Shortlisted for The Guardian/Observer for Science Writer of the Year 2011 and editor for Guru Magazine I also like to grow large pumpkins...

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