Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Can Video Games Make You Smart (Or At Least More Flexible)?

Playing strategy games improves cognitive flexibility.

The potential ills of video game play have been broadcast all over the media.  Playing violent video games can prime aggressive behavior.  Kids who get video game systems perform worse in school after they get the system than they did before. 

Not all effects of video games are bad, though.  There is evidence that playing video games can make people faster at processing visual information like searching for an object among a set of other distracters. 

One hallmark of smart thinking is flexibility.  People who are able to see the same object in different ways and can keep lots of possibilities in mind at the same time are often able to develop novel and creative solutions to problems.  A paper by Brian Glass, Todd Maddox, and Brad Love in the August 2013 issue of PLoS One suggests that some kinds of video games can help to teach this skill.

They compared the effects of playing real-time strategy games to playing games that require no particular strategic thinking.  The participants in this study were all women, because the experimenters had trouble finding enough men who do not play video games regularly.  The women were assigned to one of three groups. 

One group played a simple version of the game StarCraft.  In this game, participants have to create, organize, and deploy armies to attack an enemy.  In the simple version of the game, the player had one base and the enemy had one base.  In the more complex version of the game, the player had two bases and the enemy had two bases.  The overall difficulty of the game was then set up so that the simple and complex versions of the game were about equally hard to win.  This way, the games differed primarily in how much information players needed to keep in mind while playing.  The control condition had people play a life simulation (the SIMS), which does not require much strategy or memory.  Participants played their assigned game for 40 hours.

As a test, participants were given a pre-test and post-test of a series of tasks that tap cognitive abilities.  Some of the tests require cognitive flexibility.  For example, in the classic Stroop task, people name the color of a font for words that name colors.  The typical finding is that people are slow to name the color when the word names a different color than the font. 

In task switching procedures, people flip back and forth between the responses they make.  For example, in one task, people are shown a letter and a number (say e4).  On some trials, they are prompted to identify whether the letter is a vowel or consonant, while on other trials, they are prompted to identify whether the number is odd or even.  People generally slow down when asked to switch from one task (say identifying letters) on one trial to the other task (identifying numbers) on the next.  The faster you are able to switch between tasks, though, the more flexibly you are thinking.

Other tasks did not require flexibility.  For example, a visual search task requires finding a particular object among a set of distracters.  That task requires perceptual speed, but not flexibility.

The results of the study were striking.  Participants who played StarCraft showed significant improvement on the cognitive flexibility tasks, but not the other tasks compared to those who played the SIMS.  The improvement was largest for those who played the complex version of the game, and smaller for those who played the simple version.

Additional analyses found that the people who played the complex version of the game had to keep more information in mind while playing than those who played the simple version.  Practice using all of this information may have been the root of the improvement on the flexibility tasks.

These results are intriguing.  It is hard to get people to work on difficult tasks for long in school settings, but much easier to get them to work for long hours while playing video games.  If games can be structured to promote skills that improve flexible thinking, then they can be a valuable tool in helping people to get smarter. 

That said, flexible thinking is only a part of being smarter.  In order to really do smart things, you also need to know a lot of information in order to be able to use that knowledge to solve problems.  As much fun as video games may be, they will not substitute for the hours you need to put in to become an expert in at least one domain.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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