Cognitive Benefits of Video Games

The potentially negative consequences, a mix of legitimate fears and unfounded speculations, of video-games are widely publicised. These are, usually, fears of anti-social attitudes, isolation, obesity, behavioural problems, psychopathy and violence. But there is mounting evidence that video games may help children develop logical, literary, executive and social skills. For the sake of avoiding binary thinking, let’s be clear that there are games that feature the positive effects and there are games that feature the negative. I am not going to defend something called Killer Slasher Zombie Monks.

Eichenbaum et al (2014) published a literature review of recent research demonstrating persistent positive effects of video games on fundamental cognitive processes – processes such as perception, attention, memory and executive functions. Most research uses action gaming in its methodologies since such games create an environment where players are required to pay attention to many things simultaneously, react quickly, make rapid decisions and remember strategies that worked in the past.

This type of research requires two strategies:

Correlational:

Experienced gamers are compared with non-gamers. While the results tend to show the gamers perform better, it is not certain the games were the cause of the superior performance. They may already have had those superior cognitive abilities and that predisposed them to becoming successful gamers. So, their cognitive abilities exist and their superior gaming exists but there is no evidence of a causal relationship.

Experimental:

Similar people, equal in all relevant qualities, are assigned to a control group or an experimental group. The control group is left unaltered, the experimental group plays games and the two groups are compared at the end.

The preceding was a crash course in methodology and now I’ll summarize Eichenbaum’s findings:

Improvements in Basic Visual Processing

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, commonly called “lazy eye”, is a disorder arising from early childhood in which one eye becomes essentially non-functional. Li et al (2011) demonstrated gaming significantly improved the condition even restoring 20/20 vision and stereoscopic vision in some of the subjects. As one such sufferer, this is quite exciting for me. I and the occupational nurse at work were astonished to find I just wasn’t processing sensory input from my right eye.

Improvements in Attention and Vigilance

Improved spatial attention. Green & Bavelier (2012) found that action video gaming improved performance on the ability to isolate targets from distracting backgrounds, key to driving ability and, interestingly, an identifying trait of the highly intelligent.

Improved ability to track moving objects in a field of distractors. Action games improved the ability of players to keep track of moving objects that were visually identical to other moving objects in the visual field (Trick et al., 2005) Practice makes perfect.

Improved Self-Restraint

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 occasional self-restraint was productive (Dye, Green, & Bavelier, 2009).

Combating Dyslexia

In cases where dyslexia is compounded by deficits in 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 least as that achieved by training programs that were explicitly designed to treat dyslexia.

Improvements in Executive Functioning

Executive functioning is that group of processes (such as perception, attention, memory) that allow for rapid, efficient problem solving or decision-making. Many experiments have shown positive effects of video-game training on executive functioning. Here are two examples

Improved ability to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously. Chiappi and et al (2013) found that experience on an action video game significantly improved performance on the test, the Multi-Attribute Task Battery, modelled on skills required in piloting aircraft. High scores on this test correlate well with real-world piloting performance.

Increased mental flexibility. Gamers are significantly better at task-switching ((Anderson et al, 2010; Green et al, 2012; Colzato et al, 2014).

Reversing mental decline that accompanies aging. Age-related cognitive decline is reduced by video games in the elderly (e.g. Basek et al., 2008). Torres, 2011, demonstrated that video gaming improved self-esteem and quality of life in elderly people.

Improvements in Job-Related Skills

Studies, mostly correlational and therefore not proving causality, indicate that video games improve job performance in jobs that require good eye-hand coordination, attention, excellent working memory, and quick decision-making. MKinley et al, 2011, 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 in that. MKinley et al, 2011, in another correlational study revealed that young, inexperienced surgeons who were also keen video gamers outperformed the most experienced surgeons in their field.

The evidence still isn’t overwhelmingly convincing and there appears to be a number of researchers that are pushing an agenda or, at least fallen to group-think, but I do believe, unshackled enthusiasm aside, that the area is showing promise.