Cognitive Benefits of Playing Video Games
Research shows that video-game play improves basic mental abilities.
Posted Feb 20, 2015
In two previous articles (here and here), I summarized evidence countering the common fears about video games (that they are addictive and promote such maladies as social isolation, obesity, and violence). I also pointed there to evidence that the games may help children develop logical, literary, executive, and even social skills. Evidence has continued to mount, since then, concerning especially the cognitive benefits of such games.
The most recent issue of the American Journal of Play (Fall, 2014) includes an article by researchers Adam Eichenbaum, Daphne Bavelier, and C. Shawn Green summarizing recent research demonstrating long-lasting positive effects of video games on basic mental processes--such as perception, attention, memory, and decision-making. Most of the research involves effects of action video games—that is, games that require players to move rapidly, keep track of many items at once, hold a good deal of information in their mind at once, and make split-second decisions. Many of the abilities tapped by such games are precisely those that psychologists consider to be the basic building blocks of intelligence.
Such research employs two strategies—correlational and experimental. In a correlational study, regular gamers are compared, on some perceptual or cognitive test, with otherwise comparable people who don’t play video games. The typical finding is that the gamers outperform the non-gamers on whatever test is used. This suggests that gaming is a cause the better performance, but doesn't prove it, because it is possible that people who choose to play video games are those who already have superior perceptual and cognitive abilities. The best proof that video-gaming improves these abilities comes from experiments in which all of the participants are initially non-gamers, and then some, but not others, are asked to play a particular video game for a certain number of hours per day, for a certain number of days, for the sake of the experiment. In these experiments, the typical finding is that those who play the video game improve on measures of basic perceptual and cognitive abilities while those in the control group do not.
In what follows, I’ll simply list some of the findings that have come from this sort of research, all of which are summarized in the article by Eichenbaum and his colleagues. The reference I cite for each finding is to the original research report.
Improvements in basic visual processes
• Improved visual contrast sensitivity. Fifty hours of action video game play (spread over ten to twelve weeks) improved visual contrast sensitivity (the ability to distinguish subtle differences in shades of gray) compared to controls (Li et al., 2009).
• Successful treatment of amblyopia. Amblyopia (also called “lazy eye”) is a disorder arising from early childhood in which one eye becomes essentially non-functional. Li and colleagues (2011) performed experiments in which some adults with this disorder played action video games using only the bad eye (the good eye was covered). Other adults with the disorder did other things with the good eye covered, such as knitting or watching television. The result was that those in the gaming condition showed great improvement—often to normal or near-normal functioning—while those in the other conditions did not. Many in the gaming condition developed 20/20 vision or better in the previously “lazy eye,” and visual attention and stereoscopic vision (ability to coordinate input from the two eyes to see depth) were restored to normal.
Improvements in attention and vigilance
• Improved spatial attention. Green & Bavelier (2012) found that action video gaming improved performance on the ability to locate, quickly, a target stimulus in a field of distractors--a test that has been found to be a good predictor of driving ability.
• Improved ability to track moving objects in a field of distractors. Action games improved the ability of children and adults to keep track of a set of moving objects that were visually identical to other moving objects in the visual field (Trick et al., 2005).
• Reduced impulsiveness. Action games improved performance in a test of the ability to refrain from responding to non-target stimuli, in a situation in which most stimuli called for a response but an occasional stimulus called for no response (Dye, Green, & Bavelier, 2009).
• Overcoming dyslexia. Dysexia, in at least some cases, seems to derive from problems of visual attention. One study showed that as few as 12 hours of video game play improved dyslexic children’s scores on tests of reading and phonology (Franceschini et al, 2013). In fact, the improvement was as great or greater than that achieved by training programs that were explicitly designed to treat dyslexia.
Improvements in executive functioning
Executive functioning refers to a person’s ability to allot his or her mental resources (such as perception, attention, memory) in ways that allow for rapid, efficient problem solving or decision-making. Many experiments have shown positive effects of video-game training on measures of executive functioning. Here are two examples
• Improved ability to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously. Chiappi and colleagues (2013) found that 50 hours of experience on an action video game significantly improved performance on a test called the Multi-Attribute Task Battery, which is modeled after skills required in piloting aircraft. It involves using a joystick to keep a target centered on a screen, monitoring fuel levels, responding to lights on an instrument panel, and listening and responding to radio communication. High scores on this test correlate well with real-world piloting performance.
• Increased mental flexibility. A number of researchers have shown that experience with action video games improve people’s abilities to switch rapidly and without error between tasks that have conflicting demands ((Anderson et al, 2010; Green et al, 2012; Colzato et al, 2014).
• Reversing mental decline that accompanies aging. Cognitive flexibility, attention, working memory, and abstract reasoning all tend to decline with age. Many experiments, with elderly participants, show that video game play results in improvement in all of these abilities (e.g. Basek et al., 2008). One study found that such play led not just to cognitive improvements, but also to better self-concepts and enhanced qualities of life in elderly participants (Torres, 2011).
Improvements in job-related skills
Many studies indicate that video games improve job performance, especially for jobs that require good eye-hand coordination, attention, excellent working memory, and quick decision-making. One correlational study, for example, demonstrated that video gamers were better than non-gamers in ability to fly and land aerial drones and were essentially as good as trained pilots on this skill (MKinley et al., 2011). Another correlational study revealed that young, inexperienced surgeons who were also avid video gamers outperformed the most experienced surgeons in their field (Rosser et al., 2007). In an experiment, novice surgeons who were provided with experience with video games improved their performance in laparoscopic surgery compared with a control group of surgeons who did not have that experience (Schlickum et al., 2009).
To cognitive scientists, such research on effects of video games is fascinating in part because it demonstrates that the brain is far more moldable, throughout a person's life, than was previously believed. Until fairly recently most psychologists believed that the basic building blocks of intelligence were rather rigidly set (hard-wired) by one’s genes. But the research summarized here, coupled with much other research, indicates that this is not true. It's interestng to note that video games appear to build these components of intelligence faster and more efficiently than any other intervention anyone has devised.
If you are a parent who has been limiting your child’s computer play because of the claims you have read of harmful effects, the research summarized here and in my previous posts on video gaming might give you pause. The bulk of the research suggests that the claims about negative effects of video gaming are largely myths and the positive effects are real. As children know in their bones, the kinds of mental skills that video games help to develop are among the skills that are increasingly important in today's world.
And now, what are your thoughts and questions about all this? What experiences have you or your children had with video games? This blog is a forum for discussion, and your ideas, knowledge, and questions are valued and taken seriously, by me and by other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your comments and questions here, in the comments section, rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions. Of course, if you have something to say that applies only to you and me, then send me an email.
-Free to Learn is now available in paperback as well as hardcover.
Anderson, Ashley F., Daphne Bavelier, and C. Shawn Green. 2010. “Speed-Accuracy Tradeoffs in Cognitive Tasks in Action Game Players.” Journal of Vision 10: 748.
Basak, Chandramallika, Walter R. Boot, Michelle W. Voss, and Arthur F. Kramer. 2008. “Can Training in a Real-Time Strategy Video Game Attenuate Cognitive Decline in Older Adults?” Psychology and Aging 23:765–77.
Chiappe, Dan, Mark Conger, Janet Liao, J. Lynn Caldwell, and Kim-Phoung L. Vu (2013). “Improving Multi-Tasking Ability through Action Videogames.” Applied Ergonomics 44:278–84.
Colzato,LorenzoS.,WeryP.M.vandenWildenberg,andBernhardHommel.2014.“Cognitive Control and the COMT Val (158) Met Polymorphism: Genetic Modulation of Videogame Training and Transfer to Task-Switching Efficiency.” Psychological Research 78:670–78.
Dye, Matthew W. G., C. Shawn Green, and Daphne Bavelier. 2009. “Increasing Speed of Processing with Action Video Games.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 18:321–26.
Eichenbaum, A. E., Bavelier, D., & Green, C. S. (2014). Video games: Play that can do serious good. American Journal of Play, 7, 50-72.
Franceschini, Sandro, Simone Gori, Milena Ruffino, Simona Viola, Massimo Molteni, and Andrea Facoetti. 2013. “Action Video Games Make Dyslexic Children Read Better.” Current Biology 23:462–66.
Green, C. Shawn, and Daphne Bavelier.. 2012. “Learning, Attentional Control, and Action Video Games. Current Biology 22:R197–R206.
Li, Renjie, Uri Polat, Walter Makous, and Daphne Bavelier. 2009. “Enhancing the Con- trast Sensitivity Function through Action Video Game Training.” Nature Neuro- science 12:549–51.
Li, Roger W., Charlie Ngo, Jennie Nguyen, and Dennis M. Levi. 2011. “Video-Game Play Induces Plasticity in the Visual System of Adults with Amblyopia.” PLoS Biology 9.
McKinley, R. Andy, Lindsey K. McIntire, and Margaret A. Funke. 2011. “Operator Selec- tion for Unmanned Aerial Systems: Comparing Video Game Players and Pilots.” Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine 82:635–42.
Rosser, James C. Jr., Paul J. Lynch, Laurie Cuddihy, Dougls A. Gentile, Jonathan Klonsky, and Ronald Merrell. 2007. “The Impact of Video Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century.” Archives of Surgery 142:181–86.
Schlickum, Marcus K., Leif Hedman, Lars Enochsson, Ann Kjellin, and Li Fellander-Tsai. 2009.“Systematic Video Game Training in Surgical Novices Improves Performance in Virtual Reality Endoscopic Surgical Simulators: A Prospective Randomized Study.” World Journal of Surgery 33:2360–67.
Torres, Ana Carla Seabra. 2011. “Cognitive Effects of Video Games on Old People.” International Journal on Disability and Human Development 10:55–58.
Trick, Lana M., Fern Jaspers-Fayer, and Naina Sethi. 2005. “Multiple-Object Tracking in Children: The ‘Catch the Spies’ Task.” Cognitive Development 20:373–87.