The same video game that endlessly distracts kids from schoolwork may improve concentration and memory, according to a study on a small group of children with attention deficit disorder. Researchers found that playing Dance Dance Revolution, the arcade hit from Japan where dancers try to match the steps of a gyrating computer animation, led to an intriguing boost in reading comprehension.
"We're still in the beginning stages," cautioned Tammy McGraw, an education specialist with the Appalachian Educational Laboratory and lead author of the study. "But if we can demonstrate that video games help, we can find solutions that do not require us to medicate children as much."
The game McGraw and her colleagues tested is a far cry from the gang violence found in Grand Theft Auto or the bloody martial arts action of Mortal Kombat. There isn't even any bumping or grinding. Available for such popular home gaming systems as Sony's PlayStation II and Microsoft's Xbox, Dance Dance Revolution involves stomping on four large buttons to a danceable beat in what educators describe as a mix between Twister and Simon Says.
McGraw, who presented her findings at a recent Digital Games Research Association conference in Vancouver, Canada, said that she first got the idea to study the game after seeing a long line outside a mall. Following the endless convoy of adolescents, McGraw was surprised to find what everyone was waiting for: a chance to shake it against a virtual dancer.
McGraw had recently read about research suggesting visual and rhythmic stimulation could improve reading and attention. Perhaps, she thought, this emerging theory about learning could be matched with the latest video game craze.
"There are a lot of ways to help kids read better," said McGraw, adding that few children find them interesting. "Kids naturally gravitate toward video games."
As part of the study, McGraw and colleagues recruited 62 sixth graders who suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). First, the children were given a series of reading tests. Half the kids were then instructed to play Dance Dance Revolution for about an hour a week. The other children continued with their normal routine.
Three months later, the kids took the same reading tests again. The scores were largely the same for both groups, but those who played Dance Dance Revolution did slightly better with so-called receptive coding skills, the ability to immediately recall a word or series of numbers. This type of testing indicates greater focus and attention, a key issue for children with ADHD. The more times the kids played the game, the better they did.
"This was the real hot spot," said McGraw. By quickly matching their movements to visuals and music, children who play Dance Dance Revolution seem to strengthen the areas of the brain that are necessary for better memorization, McGraw explained. Since the game is exciting, these skills are more easily improved.
McGraw hopes to press ahead with her research to find a broader educational role for Dance Dance Revolution, as well as other video games.
"Everyone is playing them," she said, "And it's something schools can afford."