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What Video Games Can Teach Your Teen - #ADHD

Conventional wisdom calls video gaming a distraction that gets in the way of learning. But for teens with attention deficit, it may actually offer a way to enhance executive function.


If playing video games for hours guaranteed future success, I would be President by now. This isn’t the case, of course. Still, much of my mental dexterity and sharper executive function — brain-based skills required to execute tasks—- can be chalked up to my hours spent in front of a screen. Gaming has helped me manage my ADHD-related shortcomings.

Though parents will argue that video games are distracting, and an obstacle to learning, research suggests otherwise. In his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee, Ph.D., notes that what makes a game compelling is its ability to provide a coherent learning environment for players. Not only are some video games a learning experience, says Gee, but they also facilitate metacognition (problem solving). In other words, good games teach players good learning habits.

There are many video games that offer your teen the chance to have fun and to polish his executive skills at the same time. Here are four that are popular, entertaining, mentally rewarding, and cool.

Portal and Portal 2

The Portal series is revolutionary in the video game industry. It prizes gameplay instead of flashy graphics or complex narratives. Players navigate a character through an abandoned research center using a “portal gun.” It opens doors between chambers that players or objects can then move through. Portal is essentially a puzzle game set in a three-dimensional world. The game is engaging and cognitively fruitful. It requires players to use executive skills, like planning, time management, and working memory, which kids with ADHD need to work on. The recipient of multiple “game of the year” awards from various publications, the Portal series is available for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC users. Rated T for Teen.

Starcraft and Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty

These belong to a category known as Real Time Strategy (RTS) games, which are built around maps or environments viewed from overhead. Players construct different types of units and harvest materials, all with the goal of defeating an enemy (either computer or human) in battle. Kids need to devote maximum attention to ensure they are producing units at peak efficiency while anticipating attacks and planning assaults on the enemy. To be successful, a player needs to use metacognition, sustained attention, and working memory. If you need proof of how highly regarded this game is, look to the pros. Professional competitions are held for both games that routinely offer prize pools in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Available for Mac and Windows. Rated T for Teen.

The Zelda Franchise

In the realm of “oldies but goodies,” the Zelda series reigns supreme, particularly the Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask editions. Although released more than a decade ago, these games set industry standards for how to combine narrative, gameplay, and strategy. Players are challenged by a puzzle-filled world, requiring critical thinking and goal-directed persistence — in other words, completing a goal despite distractions and competing interests.

These games are available for the N64 game system, although newer versions have been released for the Wii and Nintendo’s handheld devices. Some teens may be put off by the N64’s relatively poor graphics, but I didn’t play Ocarina of Time to completion last year for no reason. The magnetic gameplay and challenge of Zelda is irresistible. Rated E for Everyone.

Guitar Hero

This game is an exercise in focus and reflex. It offers teens an opportunity to fine-tune their ability to pay attention and to turn visual stimulation into physical reaction. It takes working memory to master this game, since it relies on repetition of complex patterns. Players use plastic guitar-shaped controllers to “play along” with their favorite songs. Available for PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, Windows and Mac, and Nintendo DS. Rated T for Teen, although some versions for Wii are rated E.

Video games aren’t just entertainment. They offer kids with ADHD a risk-free opportunity to develop executive function skills that will serve them in their adult lives. So I say to parents, “Game on.” And if your kids happen to come across a player named “gwhere?” in their online travels, tell them to take it easy on him. He is getting rusty in his old age.


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