“Video games damage the brain,” “video games can alter children’s brains,” “video games boost brain power.” These are all headlines that have popped up over the years, and they’re helping paint a thoroughly confusing picture about how gaming might be affecting the brain.
While it’s clear that there are some conflicting studies, research into this area is still very much in its infancy. But one thing that seems to be consistently demonstrated is that video gaming can enhance certain skills, such as multi-tasking, perception, attention, task-switching and decision making.
So what is it about this common hobby that bestows gamers with such a broad range of benefits? This is precisely what researchers from Princeton University and the University of Rochester were eager to find out, and they think they’ve finally found the answer. Playing fast-paced action games can improve task performance because it enhances your learning capabilities.
According to lead researcher Daphne Bavelier, this is because playing such games helps our brains become more efficient at building models, or “templates,” of the world, which enables us to better predict what will happen next. “The better the template, the better the performance,” she explains in a news-release. “And now we know playing action video games actually fosters better templates.”
For the study, which has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers compared the abilities of action video gamers and non-gamers on a pattern discrimination task. This visual test, which involves identifying the orientation of fuzzy shapes on a screen, is tough at first, but becomes easier with practice. As predicted, the action gamers had the upper hand and outperformed the others. Further investigation revealed that this was because action video gamers used better templates than non-gamers.
To take this further, they enrolled a group of volunteers with little video game experience, and trained them to play video games. Half of the participants were asked to play 50 hours of fast-paced strategy games, such as Call of Duty 2, whereas the other half were asked to play mellow strategy games, such as The Sims. They tested the participants on the same visual task both before and after the training, and found that those who played action games became significantly better than those who spent their 50 hours playing happy virtual families.
Next, they compared the abilities of action gamers and non-gamers on a perceptual learning task. To their surprise, there wasn’t much between the groups at the outset. However, the gamers became much better at the task than the non-gamers over time, developing better templates for the task much faster than the others. According to Bavelier, this demonstrates an “accelerated learning curve.” Furthermore, when the groups were re-tested every few months for the next year, the action gamers still did better than the non-gamers, suggesting their better template building abilities were retained.
While this study may seem neat, psychologist and video games expert Walter Boot points out to Popular Mechanics that a recent study tested similar hypotheses, but drew the opposite conclusion. This could be due to different experimental designs, but Boot thinks it could be because the participants in Bavelier’s investigation likely worked out how they were expected to perform, which could have impacted the outcome. This doesn't mean that either study is wrong, but highlights how difficult it can be to research this area.