Monday, March 18, 2013

Video Games Can Increase Cognitive Ability, Make You Dangerous

As an adult, when I look back on my childhood and consider the ungodly number of hours I put into video games - Command & Conquer, Counter-Strike, Diablo II, Starcraft, Halo, Legend of Zelda, Tetris, Space Quest, Myst, Civilization, just to name a few - I shake my head in disbelief at how much time I frittered away. If I had spent half that amount of time in the gym, for example, I would have been one buff mamma jamma. Instead, all I have to show for it are several deeply ingrained but practically useless motor reflexes - such as the ability to buy an AWP and two flashbang grenades along with kevlar (but no helmet) in record time - and perfect recall of lines of dialogue from Metal Gear Solid and the finer plot points in Final Fantasy VII. In addition, I also developed a thick skin in response to the flood of insults, invectives, put-downs, and unending verbal abuse from other online players with names like AznMaGiC and Legali$e_iT. At the time, all of this seemed incredibly important; now, not so much.

However, a recent study suggests that this may not have all been an entire waste; and that video games relevant to specific cognitive processes, such as attention, spatial working memory, and decision-making, can actually improve these functions and show crossover to different cognitive domains.

A research group from Singapore recruited a sample of non-gamers - people I once would have looked down upon with contempt - and had them play a variety of different games, such as Bejeweled, Hidden Expedition, and The Sims (remember that?). The participants were tested on a battery of tasks tapping into abilities such as working memory and filtering out distracting stimuli. After completing these measures, subjects were randomly assigned to play one of five games (for a total of five groups), and to play that game for an hour a day over the course of four weeks. The subjects were then retested on the same tasks as before.

Participants improved markedly on those tasks most related to the game that they played - for example, those who spent time playing a memory matrix game showed significant improvement in the working-memory task. However, there was some cross-over between tasks as well, such as action-game playing associated with both improved filtering of task-irrelevant stimuli and increased ability to track multiple objects. Overall, the findings corroborated other studies focused on habitual gamers who primarily played first-person shooters, but showed that these improvements could be extended to non-gamers and to non-violent games. Taken together, this suggests that daily video game practice can both improve your cognitive abilities, and also make you a more efficient hunter of the most dangerous prey of all - man.

So, should we all start shelling out more money for video games and less money for books, poetry, and exercise equipment, such as whiffle balls? Not quite. First, there was no mention of how long the effects lasted - whether it was just for the post-test, or whether the effects could last for weeks or months. Second, although there was a considerable interval between the pre-test and post-test (one month), since this was a repeated-measures design, there is the possibility that there may have been some carryover effect; i.e., some effect of practice from the pre-test. Although there were significant differences between groups, it is unclear how this was affected by the testing before the training period. Lastly, there was no mention about playing an hour of video games a day affected other aspects of life, such as proportionally less time devoted to exercising, social interaction, and your girlfriend getting pissed off that you forgot to pick her up for your two-year anniversary date because you got so caught up in one of those three-hour Metal Gear Solid cutscenes that time seemed to stand still. Chicks, they'll never understand. (Guys, amiright?).

The paper can be found here. And, in case you were wondering, deals for the latest Starcraft II expansion can be found here.

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