How action video games enhance your cognitive abilities

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All those hours that you thought you wasted when you could have been studying, reading a paper and doing your laundry weren’t wasted after all.

Even the adult brain can grow new brain cells and rewire itself as a result of new experiences, a biological process called neuroplasticity.

Over ten years ago C. Shawn Green designed an experiment wherein the subject is supposed to spot something in a busy visual scene, the likes of ‘Where’s Waldo?’. He first tested himself, several times, and his performance was off the charts, he got a perfect score, on several tries. Dr. Daphne Bavelier then suggested that he try naïve subjects. These new subjects’ (Dr. Green’s friends) performance was also off the charts — rather odd. Finally, on the same day, they decided to test Dr. Bavelier. Her performance was nowhere near perfect; she performed as was expected — in line with historical averages.

They then spent time trying to decipher the reason for this difference and finally concluded that the key difference was this: Green and his friends had spent more than ten hours a week playing a video game called ‘Team Fortress Classic’.

This raised a very interesting question: can a video game where you spend a large portion of your time annihilating enemies really lead to an improvement in cognitive abilities?

Since this finding, several labs across the world have actually shown that playing first person/third person shooter video games (essentially action video games) does indeed increase cognitive performance in several types of tasks. Given that over 1.2 billion people worldwide are video gamers, it’s important to understand the ramifications of gaming.

Benefits of action video game experience

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It is important to note that we cannot reap the same sort of benefits from all types of video games. Indeed it has been shown that regular players of action video games, which are one of the most popular types of video games, display an improvement in certain cognitive abilities.

Vision

Individuals who regularly play action video games demonstrate an improvement in their ability to focus on visual details. This skill would prove to be rather useful in several professions, such as a lawyer looking into the fine print of a document or a pharmacist. These individuals also display greater sensitivity to visual contrast, and are able to mentally rotate objects more accurately — both of these skills could be useful in professions, for example, when a pilot flies through thick fog or when a mover tries to fit your stuff into a van.

Cognitive Functions

Action video gamers (AVGs) outperform their nonaction gaming (NAGs) counterparts in tasks involving different aspects of cognition, such as, visual short-term memory, spatial cognition, multitasking and executive function.

Decision Making

Gamers also show better ability to make good decisions under pressure. AVGs and NAGs were asked to accumulate certain information during a test about the movement of a dot in a kinematogram and make decisions about its main flow of motion. AVGs enhanced their rate of accumulation of information by ~20% and made more good decisions per unit time. I’d say that’s a pretty darn useful skill in any career!

Reaction Time and Speed-Accuracy Trade-Off

This refers to one’s ability to make quick and accurate decisions in response to changes in the environment. The reaction time of AVGs is better than NAGs by about 10% and gets better with regular play — this means that they react quicker to events happening around them. An example of this would be having to brake suddenly while driving. Tests were designed along the same lines to determine if there was a trade off between speed and accuracy, i.e. do they compromise on accuracy while becoming faster at the task? The test found that despite faster reaction times, the accuracy was unaffected. A meta-analysis showed that AVGs were ~12% faster than NAGs without having made more errors. One study actually showed that surgeons who were also gamers performed surgeries faster, with the same level of precision — thus making them more efficient!

Attention

Several facets of attention are impacted by action video game play. In one of their studies, the Bavelier lab studied attention and the phenomenon of attentional blink using a well-known psychological test. Attentional blink is the psychological phenomenon of missing the second stimulus when two stimuli are presented in quick succession (180–450ms). The test revealed that the attentional skills of AVGs was superior to that of NAGs.

The test: subjects are exposed to letters and numbers flashing on a screen at an interval of 100ms (1/10th of a second, less than the blink of an eye). NAGs have no difficulty in identifying the first digit but cannot identify the second one in the series — attentional blink. Some experienced gamers barely blink and can identify most of the digits and AVGs performed better overall.

MRI scans also reveal that the brain areas in the cerebral cortex (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — sustains attention, parietal cortex — attention switching and the cingulate cortex — monitoring one’s own behaviour) regulating attention exhibit more changes in their activity in AVGs than NAGs.

They are better at quickly shifting attention between tasks, a skill that comes in handy while having a conversation and needing to check your text messages at the same time.

A Meta-analysis

A meta-analysis is a statistical analysis that combines the results of multiple scientific studies. Dr. Bediou, at the University of Geneva, performed one to understand the effect of action video games. They found that habitual action video game play was associated with more than a half standard deviation advantage across all measured domains of cognition. Long story short — AVGs who play regularly display better cognitive skills than NAGs. 6 out of 7 cognitive domains showed a significant difference. The three cognitive domains showing the most robust impact were perception, spatial cognition and top-down attention. Smaller effects were observed for multitasking/task-switching, inhibition and verbal cognition.

They also found that age is important. Although children exhibit very high neuroplasticity, and could benefit from such training, one has to be cautious with the type of games they are exposed to. Young adults hold to gain a lot from such training primarily because action games are designed for young adults, keeping their abilities in mind. This makes studying the effect of such training on older adults moot.

Establishing Causality

It was also important to establish that video games were actually the reason that AVGs performed better and not that action gaming attracts individuals with inherently superior cognitive skills — thus introducing a population bias.

To figure this out they recruited regular NAGs and pretested them on tasks of interest. Next, half of them were assigned to play action games (such as Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and Unreal Tournament) and the other half played nonaction games (such as The Sims, Restaurant Empire andTetris). For this training, participants came to the lab to play 1–2 hours per day for 2–10 weeks. After training, the subjects performed the same tests again — posttesting.

Results revealed superior performance of the group that played action games in posttests as compared to pretests, in tasks involving vision, multitasking, some aspects of cognition and attention, when compared to the group that played nonaction games. These tests establish the causality of the relationship between action gaming and the superior performance observed in these tests.

What do video games actually teach us?

Clearly, something is going on and AVGs are consistently performing better than NAGs in tasks that neither of them have previously encountered. The findings beg the question as to what exactly action video games are teaching the gamers that results in their superior performance. Dr. Bavelier said:

“Rather than hypothesising distinct mechanisms for each task improved, it seems more parsimonious to consider one common cause: learning to learn.”

To understand what learning to learn really means, consider the tasks that AVGs outperform the NAGs in — all the tasks have one common feature, extracting relevant information from a noisy background and making a decision. Most of life’s decisions fall into this category, be it a radiologist reading an MRI, a footballer on the field or a data scientist sitting at his/her computer. How does this training actually occur? One accumulates data over several training sessions (for example a radiologist looking for something on a scan) and subconsciously makes decisions based on statistical probabilities and success of previous inferences.

Participants of these studies are the same — they encounter a new task and learn to perform better at them — they learn. Experiments have shown that AVGs do not perform better as a function of something that is directly taught by the action video games themselves but rather that they learn through the course of the experiment. The authors thus inferred that action video games taught the AVG participants to learn the appropriate statistics faster and more accurately than the NAGs.

References:

Bediou, Benoît, et al. Meta-analysis of action video game impact on perceptual, attentional, and cognitive skills. Psychological Bulletin, vol. 144, no. 1, p. 77–110, 2018

Daphne Bavelier et al. Brain Plasticity through the Life Span: Learning to Learn and Action Video Games. Annual Review of Neuroscience, Vol. 35, pages 391–416; July 2012

C. Shawn Green lectures on video games and learning as part of a massive open online course at the University of Wisconsin–Madison; http://greenlab.psych.wisc.edu