Headspace Invaders: does PC gaming help motivate the brain?

Can arcade gaming be a productive pursuit?

In an article for PC Format in 1991, then-PC Plus editor John Minson explored the question of whether PC gaming can stimulate the grey matter, a question that still holds true today.

While standing in Software Circus's High Holborn store, about half a mile from the city, I watched a number of be-suited businessmen make their way along a shop display devoted entirely to spreadsheets, databases and a multitude of other un-trivial pursuits.

Then I counted them all back down the other side where the racks are stacked with the latest PC games. And, without exception, their return journey took at least twice as long. But I'm sure that if I'd approached them with a cheery "good afternoon, I'm a journalist for a computer magazine…" they'd have bolted from the shop like a schoolboy caught sneaking a peek at the top-shelf magazines.

Such is the stigma attached to playing PC games – at least in certain circles. It might be okay to fly a simulator; that sounds serious. And a strategy game may pass as a test of intellect for Napoleons of the boardroom. But a fast-moving blaster of the sort beloved by the snot-nosed brats who inhabit penny arcades? I didn't get where I am today shooting little green blighters as they sweep from the skies!

As leisure editor of PC Plus, I provide a light-hearted respite from DOS traditionalists hurling bricks through GUI lovers' Windows. But I'm conscious of the fact that I have to pick my reviews carefully. All the same, I occasionally sneak in a short shoot-'em-up review, partly out of perversity, but also because I believe that after a frustrating day at work, 10 minutes of adrenaline pumping action is highly cathartic – not to mention a darn sight safer than taking out your aggression on fellow commuters on the M25.

Xenon II

Can games like Xenon II help the brain?

Gaming is good

But then… (and the clouds part as a heavenly choir swells from nowhere) I saw the light. ALLELUIA! Today I bring you the good news. Computer games are GOOD for you. And that includes all those noisy, fast-moving arcade games. In fact, they may even have the most Positively Beneficial Therapeutic Effects (and I use capitals advisedly). Let me explain.

The germ of this apparently bizarre notion occurred at a seminar held in the hallowed chambers of the Institute of Directors. (See, this isn't so silly at it sounds). For more than a decade, a company called TMI has been engaged in promoting a holistic, humanistic approach to time management. The Time Manager system is centred on a standard, six-ring binder but, unlike other personal organisers which merely allow you to carry around a muddle of information, TMI teaches a technique for making the most of that disparate data.

The basic theory runs along the lines that unless you focus your energies on personal goals, you'll waste vast amounts of effort on mundane, unrelated activities and achieve very little of lasting value. The secret of success is to define what you really want from life and then ensure that the greater proportion of your time is directed specifically towards those ends. The binder provides the mechanics for realising Time Manager methodology.

Inevitably, a computerised version of Time Manager evolved. Key Results streamlines the original. Appointments, activities and addresses can all be linked so that related information is immediately accessible. Meetings are automatically posted to daily, weekly and monthly plans. It even analyses how time spent equates with goals. Planning becomes fun.

But there's much more to the program than keeping a tidy diary. TMI has always encouraged a fuller understanding of the psychology behind time management. For example, it asks you to define no more than ten key areas of activity, because research suggests that the brain is capable of concentrating on one foreground topic, with ten others in the background.

In the seminar, Key Results' designer Ronald Young introduces more novel concepts. Concepts such as the relevance of juggling to become a super-achiever. Don't worry if this sounds a little weird. You can't be more bemused than the twenty managers and managing directors who each found a set of brightly coloured balls on their tables. But, as the day progressed, we all came to understand the reason for the unusual approach – and everyone took their first steps towards becoming jugglers.