Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Video games can help develop the user's mind

WITH a serious stack of cash to spend, young teenager Dylan Ford blew the lot on a huge house and proceeded to fill it with television sets. But as the cash ran out, he became depressed. The house looked like a bomb site and Dylan couldn't get a job because he felt so low. It was time to sell the TVs. "I didn't spread my assets and just bought the best of everything. "Then I realised I couldn't pay for all the rest of the stuff. I hadn't even bought a refrigerator," says the 13-year-old from Kenmore, in Brisbane's southwest.

One would hope that when Dylan gets old enough to move into his own place, he won't make the same mistakes he did with his character on The Sims video game. "Games are a fantastic way to see action and consequence," says Dylan's father, Matthew Ford, who has spent 15 years developing video games. "You make choices and you suffer the consequences - and remember, games are heartless."

Far from being a scourge on society - to blame for everything from obesity to aggression and violence - Ford believes that, used in the right way, games can be a positive influence. "Real issues do get brought up in games and you have to think about what constitutes a good act or an evil act. "I use these as a springboard to talk about issues with Dylan. "Some games can help you develop your mind in a way that's not unlike chess, where you have to think several steps ahead.

"In some strategy games there is some very deep thinking required. Parents shouldn't feel bad that their children are playing games. "I think games are largely misunderstood by parents. "The analogy is very much like rock 'n' roll, when people used to say it's just full of noise and suggestion. "Games are in a similar position. Even jazz went through that - and remember Shakespeare was once considered a bad moral influence."

Ford believes much of the research linking video games and violent behaviour has proved a correlative - rather than a causative - link."There's a correlative link between fights at school and how much a child plays violent games but that doesn't mean the games cause that behaviour. "If your child is obsessed with playing violent games then you should take a look not at the game but what's inside your child that attracts them to that game - that can be the canary in the coalmine."

Jeff Brand, a director of the Centre for New Media Research at Bond University, has spent 10 years exploring the cognitive and behavioural effects of electronic media on young audiences. His work is part of a growing body of evidence that has looked for the positive benefits, rather than the unsavoury disadvantages, of games. He says his own research shows how older generations who have never held a controller or jiggled a joystick "tend to be fearful of games". "It's the Pied Piper syndrome where people see the game as leading children away from those who should be leading them," he says. Brand, also a parent with an 11-year-old boy, agrees with Ford that games only become a problem if parents fail to engage with the issues that games throw up.

Both Brand and Ford employ a "screen time" rule restricting their child's access to any screen-based media to a certain number of minutes a day. Brand has just released research commissioned by the Interactive Entertainment Association of Australia that looks at who plays games and the attitude of the population towards them. The research revealed the average age of the Australian video game player is now 30. Many games are now geared towards that market.

"Take a game like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," Brand said. It's a violent game and it's intended for adults. But the game is satire - but it does teach us about follow-through and moral choices, and morality is a tough thing to teach." "Most of us understand that after we have stepped out of the movie theatre or played a game, that we have come back to the real world. "But the vast majority of games offer something other than violence in their storytelling."

Brand says the genre of games now topping the charts target families and party groups. "It is the one genre that has suddenly rocketed," he said. "These are the games with a social and learning value."


Pain relief from marijuana derivative in sight

It makes you cold and immobile but what the heck!

SCIENTISTS have discovered a method to release the pain-relieving potential of one of the same proteins in the body which is activated by marijuana. According to a study released today, in experiments on mice, researchers found a chemical that prevents a naturally occurring enzyme from blocking the cannabinoid receptor, called 2-arachidonoylgylcerol, or 2-AG. Once the enzyme, known as MAGL, is deactivated, the protein is more effective in dampening pain, said the team, led by Benjamin Cravatt of the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California.

The complex human cannabinoid system is thought to hold great potential for the control of chronic pain, and could also prove useful in the treatment of anxiety, depression and even obesity.

In earlier research, Mr Cravatt and colleagues decoded the chain of chemical reactions that acted on another cannabinoid receptor, AEA, paving the way for the development of pain-relieving medications. But finding the key for unlocking 2-AG proved more difficult. The tools - selective and efficacious MAGL inhibitors - just weren't there, said Jonathan Long, a graduate student at Scripps and lead author of the study. The breakthrough came thanks to a new technique for rapidly testing large numbers of chemical compounds - all potential inhibitors - called Activity-Based Protein Profiling.

One of the 200 compounds researchers created was particularly effective in blocking MAGL, and did not appear to interfere with any of several dozen other brain enzymes. Tests on mice showed the new molecule - JLZ184 - increased the concentration of 2-AG in the brain, significantly reducing pain in the lab animals.

The molecule did, however, have at least two drawbacks, highlighted by the complex web of reactions in neurochemical pathways: JLZ184 caused hypothermia, a lowering of the body temperature and reduced movement. These side-effects would have to be managed in any treatments developed for humans, the researchers said.


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