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Computer gaming can do your mind good

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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

I would love to say I got interested in computers because of my abiding desire to find rare prime numbers. Or to aid in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Or to write a great novel or to compose the next top 40 hit.

The truth is I wanted to kill giant bombardier beetles on Level 3 of "The Temple of Apshai."

It was 1980 and I was working on the city desk of a daily newspaper. Since it was a morning paper, I usually worked late into the night, but as a perk, I had the early shift on Thursdays. That meant that, since my wife worked nights, I was left to my own devices on Thursday evening each week.

About that time, my old friend Stewart Schneider bought one of the first personal computers in the area, a shiny new TRS-80 Model 1 from Radio Shack. Now, I don't share Stew's mathematical bent, so initially I couldn't work up much enthusiasm for his new digital delight. But then one spring Thursday he called to say, "So, how do you feel about searching for treasure and battling ant men and zombies?"

Suddenly, I had a plan and a mission for my Thursday nights.

"The Temple of Apshai," a role-playing game from Epyx, was the first monster hit in the early days of PCs, selling tens of thousands of copies each year during the early 1980s. Since graphics on those early machines were comically simple compared to today's high-definition standards, this dungeon and dragon game required players use a lot of imagination. You had to squint your mind a bit to transform that plain "X" lumbering across the flickering gray screen into, say, what the user manual described as "melon-sized copper-red beetles capable of generating tremendous heat within their bodies with which they attack their prey."

The game also required some mapping skills. With stick-figure minimalism, the screen displayed only one "room" at a time; it was up to you to draw your map on a legal pad in order to record how you got to this point in the dank dungeon and, more importantly, how you planned to get back out with any booty you managed to swipe from the beetles and other boogiemen you had battled.

The puzzle-solving aspect of Apshai — and of the thousands of other games it would inspire in the decades ahead — is what kept us coming back. Problem solving was, and still is, the powerful hook in this kind of gaming.

Eventually some began to view this with alarm. "Video game addiction" became a hot topic in pop psychology circles. I never knew if this was a real condition or merely fodder for master theses. However, I too would eventually become concerned about the siren song of computer games. In fact, when I left the newspaper in 1985 to become a full-time freelance writer, I included computer gaming in my list of "no-no's" for my new home office, right alongside no television during the day and no more than three cups of coffee.

To this day as a work-from-home freelancer, I still am reluctant to get too interested in those potentially habit-forming computer games. However, once a year I break my rule. In the week between Christmas and New Year's and the first week of the new year, I treat myself to one game as a kind of late Christmas present to myself. 

Last year it was a great little puzzler for the iPad called "The Room" with super graphics and a great storyline. This year I was pleased to find that game's publisher, Fireproof Games, had released a sequel, and, if anything, it is even better than the original. I recommend either of these games for anyone looking for some mental gymnastics before heading back to the grind.

The fact that I go into the new year a tad more rejuvenated as result of my tiny retreat into computer recreation has got me rethinking the role of games in our lives. 

I'm certainly not alone in this. Consider a recent study from the Education Development Center and the U.S. Congress-supported Ready To Learn Initiative, which found a curriculum that involved digital media such as computer games could actually improve early literacy skills when coupled with strong parental and teacher involvement.


  • Focusing on the youngest gamers, the study found 4- and 5-year-olds who participated showed increases in letter recognition, sound association with letters, and understanding basic concepts about stories and print.
  • Teenagers also can benefit from gameplay, even enhancing basic social skills. For instance, in "World of Warcraft," the huge the 21st Century multi-player online heir to all that Apshai glory, you'll find 13-year-olds working together, learning to delegate responsibility, promote teamwork and steer groups of people toward a common goal.
  • Even adults can benefit from gaming, the study found. Research by the Office of Naval Research indicates that video games can help adults process information much faster and improve their fundamental abilities to reason and solve problems in novel contexts. In fact, results show older video game players perform 10 percent to 20 percent higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive ability than non-game players. 


Meanwhile, things sometimes have a curious way of coming full circle. Recently I watched games and newspapering intersect again in my life. Last fall, as I was looking for a textbook to use with my journalism students at Marshall University, I came across the work of Kathleen Hansen at the University of Minnesota's J-school. Hansen has begun to explore "serious games" in news. To do this she creates news simulation environments that let citizens play through a complex, evolving news story by interacting with the newsmakers. (Google "newsgames" online for hours of reading on this fascinating subject).

So, Stew and I, as we tromped through the gore and gloom of our Apshai dungeon all those decades ago, were actually doing important advance work for the serious strategies of the new millennium. I do wish we had thought of that explanation at the time, as we met the skeptical stares of wives, friends and loved ones. If we had, we might even have become the first computerists to use what's become our era's rationale du jour. "Uh, well ... it's complicated."