This raises a fundamental issue for game design: could games with repetitious elements be teaching our brains bad behaviours? Perhaps.

A number of people – most notably indie game designer Jonathan Blow – have claimed that the reward structure of games such as World Of Warcraft lack positive rewards for learning or puzzle solving, instead simply giving us more numbers as we get through higher levels.

WoW

But it's arguable that this isn't bad until it becomes tied to excessive use. What Doidge's book about brain plasticity demonstrates is that almost any complex activity – such as learning to play a complex videogame like WoW – counts as vital exercise for the brain. When the brain is forced to master a new and radically different ability, the effects can be startling.

People in their eighties rapidly regain mental agility when forced to learn a new language, which can see their mental age roll back by twenty years. This is all thanks to the way the brain develops new connections to cope with this kind of complex mental activity and the same could well be true of videogames.

However, this only happens the first time something is learned by rote. Continue to reinforce the brain map over and over, and, well, you won't see any further improvement. And this is where common sense prevails: games can be beneficial, as long as they're balanced out with other things in your life.

Don't sit and play the same game for months on end and then expect to get a bigger brain: go and find antidotes to gaming, and make the complex mental activity of gaming part of a rich life. Indeed, the skills you get from gaming can even be put to use elsewhere in life.

Nintendo surgeon

Famed New York surgeon Dr James Rosser, one of the pioneers of keyhole surgery, insists that his trainees play four hours of games like Super Monkey Ball every day. This kind of hardcore gaming is a key part of his Top Gun-esque academy for micro-surgery trainees.

"You have to be a Nintendo surgeon," Rosser told Wired magazine, as he explained how gaming skills can extend into real life value. Clark agrees on this point: "All that time I spent playing games, I've been able to railroad that into doing other things. So when I was working on a Masters degree, the time was suddenly there. I started working on a thesis about addiction and I was putting the time I'd spent playing games into studying time. Gamers come up with all these strategies for large uninterrupted slots of time that they can spend on gaming, and that transitioned really well into being able to spend time researching."

This is not something that can be said of chemical addiction. There is no comparison between our dopamine rewards and the hard chemical dependency of drugs. The assertion that gaming is like being on drugs is therefore false, and does nothing to help us understand the true nature of problematic game use.

For Clark, gaming is neither good nor bad, but simply new, unexplored and often misunderstood. What's important is that we keep things in perspective. Headlines that decry the number of addicted World Of Warcraft players are not helpful – in fact, they're based on such a flimsy definition of addiction as to be little more than scaremongering.

As Clark points out: "The truth is that to diagnose a gaming addiction, you need to have a clinician talking to that gamer on a one-to-one basis." And even that clinician will have a lot to learn before he can make an informed judgement about the subject.

Gamers are a relatively new breed of people and we have to examine how they think and act if we're to understand the values and issues in how they spend their time.

"I think there is potential out there for gamers," says Clark. "There's something to be said for the way we think, and the way we game, that can define our lives. It just depends whether gaming leads us to do awesome things, or to waste time."

Which of those is true of you? Well, that's something you can definitely decide for yourself.

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First published in PC Format Issue 232

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