Game On: How gaming can change the world
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In the latest instalment of his Game On column, Mark Butler celebrates the fact that following years of vilification, video games are now deservedly starting to gain recognition for the positive social, psychological and educational benefits they can have. 

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[Photo: Getty]

Can video games help cure cancer?

Cancer Research UK certainly seem to think so. Their free new mobile game, Genes in Space, sees you pilot a starship through an interactive, asteroid-strewn intergalactic assault course that has been translated from groundbreaking genetic data.

By navigating your spaceship through the cosmos and collecting a fictional substance, you apparently help with the painstaking process of finding significant genetic changes – which help scientists discover cancer causing genes and develop new life saving treatments.

In the words of a charity spokesperson: “Every single second gamers spend playing directly helps our work to beat cancer sooner.”

Pretty cool, huh? Yet terrific as this is, it’s only the latest in a long line of feel-good developments that demonstrate the power of gaming to do overwhelming good.

Back in 2010, Jane McGonigal’s inspiring TED talk argued that the rewarding mechanics and motivational power of video games are ideally suited to tackling real-world problems – and she appears to be absolutely right.

In recent years video games have been used to drive everything from educational initiatives and scientific breakthroughs, to the saving of endangered animals. It’s now widely believed that so-called ‘gamification’ will form a key part of learning, political and social endeavours going forward.

The truth is, it’s high-time that the pioneering, influential world of video games was afforded more respect – and recognised for its genuine propensity to exert a positive impact upon society. Aside from the kind of real-world applications mentioned above, it’s clear that there may also be inherent psychological and social value in playing games on a regular basis.

Over the years we’ve become all-too accustomed to the vilification of the medium, and accusations about its apparently negative effects.

Games make people violent! Games make people anti-social! Games leave kids unable to cope with the real world!

We’ve heard all of these arguments ad nauseum in the past, but the tide is beginning to turn.

Now researchers are reporting that video games may well enhance certain aspects of intelligence, boost decision-making, and increase children’s learning and social skills. For a while now positive influences on perception, creativity, problem-solving and – perhaps unsurprisingly – hand-eye co-ordination have also been noted.

Recent indie sensation Minecraft has been widely praised by parents for its powerful properties as a learning tool, and there have been some incredible accounts of how the game has proven invaluable at helping children with Autism and Asperger’s to overcome some of the difficulties that they face.

On an intellectual level, it’s apparent that video games also have the power to offer thought-provoking insight into complex real-life issues – and in arguably more striking fashion than filmmaking or literature.

The much-lauded Papers, Please, which puts you in the shoes of an immigration officer in a totalitarian state, is an absorbing, stress-inducing nightmare of moral dilemmas; and the kind of bureacratic satire to rival Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

Forthcoming project 1979 Revolution, the work of veteran designer Navid Khonsari, follows a young Iranian photojournalist caught up in the chaos of that nation’s famous, historic uprising – and features voice actors from Argo no less.

To bring us full circle – back to the terrible pain wrought by cancer, and the ongoing battle to combat it – an extraordinary experience co-created by Ryan Green relates the heartbreaking struggles of the developer and his young son Joel, after the latter was diagnosed with the disease.

The point is that games are capable of casting a light on the impact and legacy of real-world problems and events, as well as offering a possible platform to tackle them.

Can video games help cure cancer? Only time will tell. But you’d be a fool to deny the positive impact they’re capable of having.

Genes In Space is available now on iOS and Android

Check out other ‘Game On’ articles:

Mark Butler

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