10 Amazing Ways Video Games Can Change Your Life

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by JR Minkel

They can save your life, crush your soul, make you a fortune, or even leave you penniless. Here are 10 reasons why video games have more real-world power than you think.

1. They Can Make You a Better Surgeon

The next time you go under the knife, make sure to vet your surgeon's video game skills first. In 2007, researchers at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City reported that people who played video games for at least three hours a week made better surgeons. In a series of hands-on tests that mimicked laparoscopic surgery, gamers made 37 percent fewer errors and were 27 percent faster than non-players. Among the 33 surgeons who participated, skill and experience at video games were better predictors of test performance than years of training or even the number of surgeries they'd previously performed.

The study's results confirmed what Dr. James Rosser, Beth Israel's chief of minimally invasive surgery, had long suspected. A lifelong gamer, Rosser noticed that his non-gaming peers didn't have the same fine motor control with their hands that he did. Now that there's proof to back his theory, Rosser and his colleagues have a good excuse for keeping multiple video game systems close to the operating room and playing them in their downtime. After all, a surgeon's got to stay sharp!

2. They Can Marry You

Men have loved video games for a long time, but we know of only one man who has proven his love with a commitment ceremony.

In November 2009, a Japanese man who goes by the name SAL9000 married Nene Anegasaki, one of three female characters in Love Plus, a video game for the handheld Nintendo DS. He even had a priest there to conduct the ceremony in front of a live audience. SAL9000 had been courting his beloved Nene for a long time; he'd already taken her on vacation to Guam and documented the trip online.

Although the wedding wasn't legally binding, it did highlight the popularity of Love Plus and other dating sims, in which the player—usually a man—woos a number of young women by taking them on virtual dates. In most sims, the game ends when the woman professes her love for the player. Love Plus, however, has taken the concept a step further by advancing the relationship past courtship to physical intimacy. When the virtual girlfriend wants affection, the player can simulate kissing or caressing by touching a stylus pen to the screen. When she wants to hear "I love you," the player speaks the words into the game system's microphone. And while SAL9000 used his wedding ceremony as both a performance-art piece and a lighthearted way to affirm his love for his virtual girlfriend, not all gamers are so self-aware. One Love Plus player reportedly keeps his virtual girlfriend near him while he's sleeping and bathing.

3. They Can Teach You How to Build an Empire

In 1984, a 24-year-old game designer named Will Wright published his first game, Raid on Bungeling Bay. The goal was for players to pilot a helicopter over a series of islands, blowing up factories and bridges while dodging enemy fire. As people advanced to the next level, the factories were programmed to produce more sophisticated weapons—fighter jets, missiles, battleships. Realizing that the design tool he used to program the factories was a game in itself, Wright started experimenting with the concept. The result was a new game called Micropolis. This time, the object was to design a city from the ground up. Players built roads, factories, housing, and other infrastructure, and the game progressed according to the principles of urban planning. If the city grew too quickly, traffic congestion set in. If people didn't have enough places to work, they'd riot.

Major game companies were leery of a game that had no criteria for winning, but Wright met a pair of fellow designers who liked the concept. The three retitled the game SimCity and self-published it in 1989. The results were stunning. SimCity became a smash hit in its first year, spawning several sequels. It also launched the category of "sandbox" games, which focus on exploring a game's possibilities rather than winning or losing. Riding on SimCity's success, Wright became the first superstar of game design. In 2000, he released The Sims, which puts players in control of simulated people. It went on to sell more than 15 million copies, making it the best-selling computer game of all time.

4. They Can Overrun ESPN.com with Unicorns

When gamers need help from a higher power, they know exactly what buttons to press: up-up-down-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start. The cheat sequence, known as the Konami code, was created by a game programmer named Kazuhisa Hashimoto. In 1985, Hashimoto was trying to adapt the fiendishly difficult Konami game GRADIUS for the Nintendo Entertainment System. To make the game easier to test, he introduced a code that would allow him to start the game fully stocked with weapons. Hashimoto must have leaked the code to someone, because after he used it again while developing the game Contra, entertainment magazines were all atwitter about the trick sequence. When players entered the code in Contra, they went from having three lives to 30 (or nine to 90 with continues), making it possible for average players to win the game in one binge.

The Konami code went on to appear in dozens of games, and it remains a geek touchstone to this day. Until 2009, you could type it into ESPN.com, and the page would fill up with unicorns and rainbows.

5. They Can Make You Crazy Rich

Make no mistake; there's plenty of money to be made playing video games. In the late 1990s, game makers introduced online role-playing games in which thousands, even millions, of online players can vanquish monsters and hunt for treasure while inhabiting virtual worlds. These massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs, encourage players to collect gold coins and other in-game money, and then trade them with other players for more powerful weapons, armor, and equipment.

It sounds innocent, but this virtual market made a quick leap to the real world after users realized that they could sell their make-believe valuables on eBay for a profit. The system, known as gold farming, can be quite lucrative. In 2008, one analyst estimated that gold farming was a billion-dollar industry that employed some 400,000 people worldwide. In China, where 80 to 85 percent of gold farmers reside, companies pay gamers low wages to work 10-hour shifts in sweatshop-like conditions. The firms even have call centers set up to handle international clients, with individual operators fielding as many as 100 calls a day.

The system has vexed video game companies, and they aren't the only ones irritated by the emerging market. In Asia, gold farming has become so prevalent that governments are stepping in to regulate the practice. Both the Chinese and Japanese governments have enforced laws concerning virtual currencies due to the growing number of scams and fraudulent acts taking place in gold-farming communities.

6. They Can Teach You About Starting Over

In the early 1980s, Atari was the hottest commodity in the booming video game industry. In 1982, the company grossed $2 billion, thanks in large part to the release of Space Invaders for the home Atari 2600 system. But the following year, everything changed. The company posted losses of more than $500 million, kicking off a two-year slump that nearly killed the young industry.

Although there were many causes for the decline, one of the biggest had to do with a certain lovable alien. It all started when Atari's parent company, Warner, paid more than $20 million to license E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial from Universal Pictures. By the time the contract was signed, Atari had only six weeks to come up with a final product. The end result was a poorly conceived game in which E.T. had to find the pieces of a telephone in order to phone home. As if the storyline weren't dull enough, the game's scavenger hunts were made worse by the fact that many of the pits that E.T. could search through were completely empty. Gamers were left frustrated, and sales were abysmal.

But E.T. wasn't the only dud on the shelves. Third-party publishers started flooding the video game aisles with subpar games, and retailers were forced to slash prices. Even Quaker Oats and Purina got into the gaming business, releasing their own shoddy products. Consumers grew so wary of video games that in 1985, when Nintendo arrived on the scene with the NES, its primary marketing angle was to convince parents that it was offering a toy, not a home video game system.

7. They Can Wreck Your Lives

Most people are able to tear themselves away from a video game eventually, no matter how much fun it is. But the trouble starts when the rewards of playing a game begin to outweigh the benefits of real life.

Such was the case in 2005, when a 28-year-old South Korean man named Lee Seung Seop suffered a fatal heart attack after playing online games for nearly 50 hours straight at an Internet café in the city of Tengu. Sadly, these types of cases are growing in number. According to surveys conducted in the United States and Asia, an estimated 3 to 30 percent of gamers show signs of video game dependency.

Psychologists put the affliction in the same category as pathological gambling. A player experiences a small high after completing a task in a video game, and the high keeps him coming back for more. Over time, the addict requires more and more time in front of the screen to achieve the same high, while the rest of his life is left to crumble.

Treatment centers for gaming have sprung up in a number of countries, including South Korea and China. In 2005, Chinese officials became so concerned about game addiction that they instituted an anti-addiction program online that's designed to prevent people from playing longer than three hours at a time. If that doesn't work, parents are encouraged to send their kids in for game-addiction treatment, which may include counseling, medication, and shock therapy.

8. They Can Shock and Awe

When Nintendo burst onto the home-gaming scene in 1985 with its Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), it was determined not to repeat the numerous mistakes of its predecessor, Atari. One of Atari's biggest missteps had been the public relations hit it took in 1982 with the release of Custer's Revenge. The game, created by a third-party publisher, featured a naked General Custer dodging arrows on his mission to have sex with a tied-up Indian princess. Women's rights and Native American's rights groups promptly protested the game, creating a public relations disaster.

Learning from the Custer's Revenge incident, Nintendo made it official policy to review the content of all the games published for its system in the United States to ensure that they were appropriate for America's youngsters. References to sex and drugs were out, as was excessive violence. Nintendo even sanitized the violent games that had already been out in arcades.

Mortal Kombat put an end to this policy. The original arcade version, which was a big hit in 1993, featured characters that punched and kicked each other until they sent blood flying. The brutal game also featured moves called "fatalities," in which players could decapitate their opponents or rip out their hearts. But when Nintendo replaced the blood with sweat and took out the fatalities, the game flopped. Meanwhile, its rival, Sega, released a faithful recreation. Its version of Mortal Kombat outsold Nintendo's three-to-one. (Nintendo eased its policy for the game's sequel.) In 1995, Sony introduced the powerful new PlayStation console, and game developers flocked to a company that would let them express their pent-up creative urges.

9. They Can Clean Your Room

Nintendo designers knew they were breaking the mold when they introduced the world to the Wii in 2005. Instead of sitting still and pressing buttons, players could get up and move, slashing swords and hitting tennis balls by simply swinging the Wii-mote. The secret to the Wii controller is that it contains both an accelerometer, which measures its velocity, and Bluetooth technology, which sends information to the game console wirelessly.

Of course, it didn't take long for techies to figure out how to hack the Wii-mote, sending the wireless signals to other types of electrical devices. These days, clever programmers use their Wii controllers to deejay music, run interactive whiteboards, and even control their Roomba vacuum cleaners—all by waving their Wii-motes like a wand.

10. They Can Steam Things Up

The best-selling video game series Grand Theft Auto is all about freedom—the freedom to steal cars, run people over, and shoot at the cops. But it was the freedom to have sex that got the makers of the game into legal hot water.

In 2004, Rockstar Games released Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, the fifth game in the series. In one of the game's subplots, players can send the main character, C.J., on dates with various girlfriends. After enough dates, one girlfriend would invite C.J. into her home for coffee, followed by muffled sounds of fornication. Shortly after the game hit stores, a 36-year-old Dutch techie named Patrick Wildenborg discovered a piece of buried computer code that, when slightly modified, unlocked a scene showing C.J. and his girlfriend in the act. According to on-screen instructions, players could control C.J., pressing up and down to achieve maximum "excitement level."

Wildenborg titled the code "hot coffee" and distributed it online. At first, Rockstar Games denied that the virtual sex was its doing, and insisted that Wildenborg had invented the scene. But hackers quickly uncovered the same code in Rockstar versions made for other gaming systems. The Entertainment Standards Review Board immediately switched the game's rating to Adults Only (18 and up), and stores pulled it from their shelves. In 2009, after lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit alleging consumer fraud, the company settled for $20.1 million.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine in 2010. Pick up a copy wherever brilliant/lots of magazines are sold, request a free issue, or check out our iPad edition.

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