Attention…Deficit? ADHD, Video Games and Concentration

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Reader’s Question

Why can children with ADHD focus so well on things they like to do without much problem, like video games? I know children who have ADHD and who can play video games for hours — but when it comes to homework, they can’t do it. Why?

Psychologist’s Reply

Excellent question! The answer is simple, and the authors of video games knew this from the start. The player pays attention to something that happens for only a split second. Then a new event happens, the attention has to shift and focus, and the player needs to react to it. The game is a measure of how quickly you can shift your attention and react to new conditions of the game. Because this happens constantly, it appears from the outside that the player can concentrate on the game for hours. In fact, the player concentrates on something for milliseconds, but there is a steady stream of millisecond interactions.

The US Army has realized the importance of this and used it in their training programs and weapons interfaces. You can download free interactive ‘games’ of warfare, some of which are taken from real war scenes, and some of which uses real weapon interfaces. Kids come to these games with a highly developed skill set and are highly efficient soldiers. The only difference: the guns do not shoot blanks.

You can contrast this with an old movie, say “Sergeant York”. In that 1941 movie filmed in black and white, a single scene might last five minutes. The camera may spend two minutes just panning the face of an actor. While someone seasoned in this type of cinematography might eat this up, to a young person or someone with ADHD, it just drives them crazy. They need more action. So, videogames specifically address this need. And they have succeeded.

A final example, which I learned from a special ed teacher: if you have an ADHD child who can’t sit still at his desk, try giving him a one-legged stool. To sit on a one-legged stool, you have to constantly be adjusting your balance. So, although it looks like you’re sitting still, your body is constantly busy. Give this a try! You may notice that the ‘wiggly chair’ becomes a favorite toy, and kids need to take turns with it. Also, you’ll notice that an ADHD kid can instantly spend twice as much time at a desk than he could before.

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