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  • Writer's pictureTeam Nolmë Labs

To play (video games) or not to play: No longer the question?

- Ishani Pande

Do you remember the last time you played a video game? You took control of a character on the screen, personalized it, and embarked on a mission. You probably had to guide the character through a series of obstacles, while navigating the virtual environment. Enemies might have ambushed you, getting in the way of your goal. You probably failed a couple of times or ran out of time, getting lost in all the distractions. Then you probably had to start all over again. Sounds familiar?

What is playing a video game all about? Traditionalists will say it is just a mindless, intellectually undemanding activity designed purely for entertainment purposes, and a waste of time. Video games generally get a bad rap for having a negative impact, primarily linked with violence, aggression, and addiction. While these effects cannot be undermined, a new body of research is emerging, highlighting certain cognitive benefits that video games promote, like improved attention, memory, decision-making, spatial skills, and so on.

Most experimental studies have recruited novice gamers or non-gamers to play either an action video game (shooter game) or a different type of game and compared their performance on a number of cognitive tasks. Findings show that action video games have numerous cognitive benefits like improvement in attention, memory, spatial skills, and so on. In one of the most prominent studies in this field, two groups of non video game players were trained on two types of games for the same amount of time: the experimental group practiced a first-person shooter action game ‘Medal of Honor’, whereas the control group was trained on ‘Tetris’, a spatial tile-matching puzzle game. Interestingly, results showed that the action game players were significantly better at focusing on targets of interest, controlling their reactivity to the distractors, in the visually cluttered and noisy field, as compared to the Tetris players.

This finding can be explained by the flanker effect. While responding to stimuli surrounded or ‘flanked’ by irrelevant stimuli or distractors, they can negatively affect your response. When the target task is easy, target processing is hindered as the leftover attentional resources process the distractors to a certain extent. However, as the target task increases in difficulty, fewer attentional resources are left to process the distractors. In action video games, challenging targets lie ahead of the player who must multitask, like simultaneously handle incoming enemies, navigate obstacles, avoid getting hurt, stick to a time limit if necessary, and so on. Processing this together leads to an increased capacity of the visual attentional system. Because of the greater attentional capacity, as the target task becomes more difficult, action video gamers use up their visual attention resources more slowly than non video game players.

How can the cognitive benefits of video games be harnessed?

If action video games enhance visual attention, they might be useful as training mediums in classrooms. Older students especially may benefit from this, since action games are more age appropriate for them and can serve as a fun and motivational way of increasing attention, in turn boosting classroom learning. Research also shows that action video game training can help children with dyslexia improve reading ability by enhancing their visual attentional skills. Dyslexia is rooted in deficits in visual attention, causing children to have trouble sifting relevant information from the surrounding irrelevant written material. However, these deficits are diminished by action video games, which improve the ability to derive the target information from the virtual environment, amid the distractors. Dyslexic children who received the action video game intervention learned to better direct and focus their attention to the relevant information of the written language more rapidly and accurately, paving the way for the development of further remediation measures.

Research also indicates that action gamers assess new visual stimuli more rapidly and so are more efficient decision-makers where a rapid response is concerned. In the first part of the study, video game players and non video game players had to indicate whether more dots were moving to the right or left in a display of moving dots. The results showed that video gamer players were significantly faster at such decision-making. To ensure that this finding wasn’t limited to visual perception and could be generalized to other sensory domains, another experiment was conducted with auditory stimuli, wherein participants were required to distinguish pure tones from white noise. Again, video game players were faster at making decisions about auditory input, thus establishing that video game-playing skills result in improvements in different types of tasks, regardless of whether those tasks rely on auditory or visual acuity.

Action video games require fast reaction time in order to make correct decisions instantly. For example, the player can never know when an enemy might pop out and has to decide the most effective action almost immediately. For this, players accumulate all sensory details from the virtual surroundings quickly and calculate what will be the most accurate decision, enabling rapid decision-making skills to develop. This finding can extend to everyday situations. For instance, when driving, if you detect a sudden movement to the side, you must immediately decide whether to swerve to avoid collision, or if the movement is irrelevant. In fact, certain professions like surgeons, law enforcement or the military that require accurate and sharp decision-making can benefit from action video game training.

3D Gaming and it’s Cognitive Outcomes

Research has found that 3D video games can improve the formation of memories. In a study, non-gamer college students either played Angry Birds, a video game with a passive 2D environment or Super Mario 3D World, one with an elaborate 3D setting for half-an-hour per day over a two-week duration. A memory test of recognition was given before and after the video game intervention period, engaging the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with spatial processing and memory. The results showed that playing the 3D video game led to significantly an increase in memory scores, while the 2D games did not.

The virtual setting of 3D games corresponds more closely to the reality of our natural surroundings, than 2D games. While both 2D and 3D video games are designed as immersive user experiences, complete with characters and adventures, 3D games have a more extensive, engaging, and richer environment. To complete the missions in 3D games, the player must accurately remember and navigate such types of virtual environments, which involves processing more complex visual-spatial information. With more stimuli to attend to and learn, these games hone attentional skills as well. They thus tap into numerous cognitive processes at once, stimulating the hippocampus and in turn aiding memory.

These findings have important implications. Video games have the potential to be incorporated as novel virtual approaches to help people overcome cognitive deficits. Since memory declines with age, stimulating the hippocampus is vital for boosting memory formation, for example in those suffering from dementia. Also, since video games are fun to play, they could be ideal interventions to promote recovery in stroke patients, boost abilities in students with special educational needs, or for older adults. After all, you’re certainly never too old to play!

Ishani Pande is a Research Assistant at Nolmë Labs. She is an ardent reader and is passionate about learning new things. She is interested in Cognitive Psychology and wishes to pursue it further.

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