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For some, video games are a good thing

USA Today

Several times a week before dinner, Janet and Jim Herlihey of West Chester, Pa., remind their sons Michael, 12, and Paul, 10, to get in a good half-hour of video game time before eating.

Parents telling their kids to play video games? That’s right. The boys are among the estimated 5 percent to 7 percent of children who have attention deficit disorder (ADD), and video games, as prescribed by their psychologist, have helped them learn to focus, their mother says.

In addition to a Sony PlayStation 2, the family has some special equipment: a SMART BrainGames system that consists of a special controller, a helmet with built-in sensors for monitoring brain activity and a Smartbox that receives the brain signals.

As long as the boys remain calmly focused on the game, it plays normally, says their Philadelphia psychologist, Domenic Greco. But if a player’s mind wanders, the Smartbox sends a signal to the controller hindering acceleration or character movement in the game.

The Herliheys connected online with Greco, who designed the system by adapting a similar one that NASA used for pilot training. After treating the boys last year at his office in Philadelphia, he recommended the at-home video game therapy.

Greco says that more than 50 clinics are using SMART BrainGames systems to help children and adults with ADD. The company is beginning a home marketing push; the systems, which cost $548 (PS2 not included), are available online at www.smartbrain games.com.

Video game-based neuro-feedback may be “an interesting and possibly promising treatment, but there’s still not enough research to recommend it as a first-line treatment” for children with ADD, says Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children’s Hospital in New Hyde Park, N.Y. “Families are often loath to consider medication but … it’s the single most proven treatment.”

Janet Herlihey admits that she was skeptical at first. She had not allowed video games in the home because “they didn’t seem like a good match for my family,” which also includes Peter, 8, and Beth, 6. “When they first sat down to play, they were physically rocking the entire chair,” she says. “Now, they sit calmly and their eyes are doing all the tracking.”

Despite receiving standard neuro-feedback treatment for ADD in the past, Michael still had memory problems that affected his schoolwork and left him frustrated. In playing video games, Michael has to calmly focus on the task at hand to succeed, his mother says. After nearly a year of game-based therapy, he has learned to transfer the game-playing focus skills to school and even soccer, where he’s become a prolific scorer, she says.

In Paul’s case, he has regained his love of reading, which had become something he could not sit still and focus on, his mom says.

Video games as therapy is just one example of the changing attitude that some in the health care and medical industries have toward video games, an often-criticized pastime.

Looking past the violence and adult content in games such as “Grand Theft Auto,” a growing number of researchers have begun to embrace the medium’s high-quality 3-D environments and simulation programs.

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