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Justin Hoenke and his son, Finn, 5, enjoy time together playing Super Mario 3D World on their Wii U.

Want your kids to be well-rounded adults? Better make an appointment with Dr. Mario.

Based on a recently released study, "video games rot your brain" may soon join "cross your eyes and they'll stick that way" on the list of outmoded parental wisdom. According to researchers, children who play video games for up to an hour per day tend to be more socially adjusted than nongamers.

"Electronic Gaming and Psychosocial Development" was published on Aug. 4 by Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics. The study is based on self-reports by 4,900 British tweens and teens, who were asked how often they play video games and responded to statements to assess their psychological adjustment.

The study found that, compared to children who didn't play games, the 31 percent of console gamers and 36 percent of PC gamers who played for up to an hour a day demonstrated greater satisfaction with their lives and fewer issues with aggression, depression, anxiety and withdrawal.

"Games may bolster adjustment by providing psychologically rewarding experiences that dispel negative affect, inspire prosocial behavior, foster creativity, as well as broaden self-concept and build social connections," writes study author Dr. Andrew Przybylski, a behavioral scientist at the University of Oxford.

Some local parents who grew up holding controllers of their own say the findings of the Pediatrics study, in particular, vindicate their own long-standing assumptions about gaming's positive benefits.

"I grew up being told 'video games are bad for you' and I turned out OK, I think," laughs Justin Hoenke, 34, one of the librarians in charge of the teen and tween center on the second floor of the Chattanooga Public Library.

Hoenke began playing games at 7 when he was given a Nintendo Entertainment System. His sons -- Finn, 5, and Aero, 2 -- have grown up with Nintendo consoles in the household. Finn began showing interest in the hobby when he was 2 and now plays "Mario Kart 8" and "Lego Star Wars II" alongside his dad.

"It has sort of always been in the back of my mind that gaming has done [these things]," Hoenke says. "I know from my own personal experience that, when I play games I'm really excited about, I'm excited to talk about them and share them."

In the Pediatrics study, "opportunities for exploration ... and socialization with peers" were suggested as among the main qualities that made games beneficial to psychological adjustment. Hoenke says he sees those aspects of gaming acted out every day by the kids who adventure through the blocky landscapes of "Minecraft" on computers in the library. The game's randomly created, endless landscapes offer opportunities for free-form adventuring and building, and Hoenke says he's seen many teens bond by talking about their "Minecraft" exploits and achievements.

"If they see someone on our computers playing 'Minecraft,' they're immediately drawn to that kid and just start talking to each other and playing," he says. "Just being able to express yourself through that game gives people an outlet to put something unique out into the world. Kids and teens especially need that. It's one of the first games that sort of doesn't tell you what you can and can't do, and that's just extremely liberating."

PEER PLAY

Gaming now has become a predominantly social activity. According to the Electronic Software Association's 2014 industry report on sales, demographics and usage data, 62 percent of gamers say they only play with others, either in person or online.

According to the same report, 56 percent of parents see video games as a positive part of their child's life. The majority of families with gamers under age 18 say games provide mental stimulation or education (68 percent), help children connect with their friends (58 percent) and help the family spend time together (55 percent).

The British study's findings in Pediatrics reflect a growing sentiment among the public and researchers that gaming is not just a mainstream form of entertainment but an important forum for 21st-century social interaction.

"More people than ever are playing games, which automatically gives you something to connect you with your friends or classmates," says lifelong gamer Charlie Nelson, 41. His children -- Connor, 16, William, 10, and Lily, 4 -- all play games daily, usually for two hours or less, he says.

"Playing games is a great way to blow off steam or relax, which I'm sure contributes to the lower rates of depression or anxiety [found in the study]," Nelson says. "Also, beating a tough level or finishing a game makes you feel like you achieved something, which is obviously a boost to self image."

Gaming has had some degree of social component since its inception in the 1970s, when players gathered around game cabinets in convenience stores and gaming arcades in pursuit of high-score laurels. Once gaming moved into the home through game consoles such as the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System, however, players' opportunities to socialize became limited to how many people could fit on the couch at once.

Social interaction through games experienced a renaissance in the late 1990s and early 2000s with the advent of mainstream online gaming services such as Xbox Live or Playstation Network. By July 2013, these services claimed more than 155 million members, according to Microsoft and Sony's self-reported statistics.

Along with the appearance of online console gaming services, PC gamers in the early 2000s saw the concurrent rise in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games such as "Everquest" (1999), "Eve Online" (2003) and "World of Warcraft" (2004). These titles attracted millions of gamers who engaged with one another in persistent worlds where they often needed to cooperate to overcome challenges.

In March, researchers at North Carolina State University, York University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology released their findings after analyzing gamers' socialization at 20 public gaming events and observation of their behavior online. Their findings were that, contrary to their depiction in pop culture, participants in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games aren't "antisocial basement dwellers."

"They're highly social people," Dr. Nick Taylor, the study's lead author, writes in an NC State news release. "We found that gamers were often exhibiting many social behaviors at once. ... Gaming didn't eliminate social interaction; it supplanted it."

CONTROLLING THE CONTROLLER

According to the Pediatrics study, however, teens saw the greatest socialization benefits from gaming only when their play time was limited.

"Moderate" gamers who played for one to three hours a day -- 31 percent of console gamers and 41 percent of PC gamers -- were found to have no measurable change in social development, positive or negative, compared to nongamers. Less than 10 percent of teens in the report said they spent more than three hours a day playing a PC or console, but those who did were found to have a range of issues, including lower levels of prosocial behavior and a diminished sense of satisfaction with their lives and relationships.

"This suggests a large share of time devoted to games may crowd out engagement in other enriching activities and risk exposure to content meant for mature audiences," Przybylski writes in the study.

Not all parents agree that gaming, even small amounts, has a positive effect on their teens.

Some of his friends may become better adjusted with a controller in their hands, but whenever Gabe Potter, 14, turns on a console, his mother says it always seems to switch off his brain.

"Quite frankly, he becomes an ignorant zombie, who has no desire to take part in a real conversation or daily life activities, if I do let him play," Ringgold resident Jennifer Potter writes on the Times Free Press Facebook page.

In an email elaboration to her comments, Potter says Gabe was having "a difficult time" adjusting to adolescence, especially while playing games, and seemed to have difficulty putting thoughts together. It was, she says, "like his mind was literally slow."

Searching for various causes to the problem, she and her husband eventually limited his gaming to weekends and during the summer. The results of this limit have been dramatic, she says.

"We saw a big change in his willingness to communicate," she says. "Now, he freely offers details about school, friends and his life."

The Potters are among the majority of parents -- about 83 percent -- who report that they curtail their child's gaming, according to the Electronic Software Association's 2014 industry report.

As to the British study's findings that gaming can improve socialization? She's taking that with a grain of salt.

"Unfortunately, we have parents that will take this to the extreme and use it as a way to get out of hands-on parenting," she says. "I'm curious to see where this research stands in 15 years, and how well these kids are succeeding as adults."

Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfrepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

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