CHILDREN who spend hours playing computer games may actually be doing themselves some good, according to a controversial three-year university study published yesterday.
Online role-playing games - where players compete against other, unseen players - may give young people vital lessons in learning about other races, the opposite sex and those with disabilities.
Researchers from Brunel University spent three years studying 13-16-year-olds who play a leading web-based game.
And far from becoming pale prisoners of their own bedrooms, regular players were found to enhance rather than restrict their imagination, the study found.
Because the game allows them to meet other role-playing gamers, many youngsters also get the chance to find out about different nationalities and races they would not normally come into contact with.
Multi-player online games give children a freedom to explore but without their parents worrying about where they are in an age when, in real life, they are not allowed out by themselves because of safety fears, said Nic Crowe and Dr Simon Bradford of Brunel's School of Sport and Education.
Mr Crowe said: "Virtual environments form important new leisure spaces for the many young people who occupy them.
"In the real world, where streets or town centres have become inaccessible to many young people or are considered unsafe by them or their parents, it is not surprising virtual public space has become increasingly attractive as a leisure setting."
Mr Crowe added: "The appeal [of online role-playing games] lies in the provision of an environment in which young people can experiment with the cultural institutions and structures of the material world.
"It is a space in which young people can establish their presence, identity and meaning in ways that might not be accessible or permissible in their everyday lives."
Dr Bradford said: "We met many players taking part in online role-playing, sometimes to extend or to compensate for experiences in the real world.
"For example, young people whose parents could not afford a summer holiday enjoyed virtual holidays online,"
He added: "We noted how entrepreneurial young players engaged in business deals online, experiencing positive opportunities often not open to them in the material world.
"At a time when emerging technologies such as the internet, and computer games continue to be subject to suspicion and concern, it is important we recognise the benefits of what is an increasingly important activity for our young people."