your brain and video games

22 February 2015

Since video games have become a widespread pastime, there have been many studies trying to find their psychological impacts, with a few findings coming into public awareness. One exciting finding is that there are cognitive benefits to playing video games. I mean, how enticing is that? Playing games, getting smarter while you procrastinate, and potentially being able to get through work faster once you’re done with the game. Okay, so that may be wishful thinking, but many studies have found that gamers typically outperform non-gamers on cognitive tasks.

Numerous studies have found that people who played shooter video games (compared with games of a different genre) showed faster and more accurate attention allocation, improved mental rotation abilities and their visual processing was of higher quality. These effects seemed to be long lasting, and the skills could be generalised to situations other than the video game world. How incredible! To top it off, these spatial skills have been linked to success in STEM fields. Video games also appear to be associated with enhanced creativity and problem solving, particularly with role playing games.

However, I do want to mention that not all games have such positive results. Ignoring for the moment the possible link between violent games and aggression, an example of this is the cognitive training (i.e. ‘brain training’) field, and its literature is possibly the most patchy I’ve ever seen. To attempt to sum up: sometimes cognitive training works and sometimes with long term effects but we don’t really know what mediates any of these things (looking at you, Lumosity).

But why is it that the training that video games can achieve in a matter of hours could take an entire university course to accomplish? My thinking: capitalism. No, for real though. For games to be widely popular, creators need people to be challenged, but not enough that they won’t play the game. They need to have the player learn a myriad of rules, actions, gameplay and complex stories without the player getting bored or frustrated. And so, thanks to capitalism, successful game developers become the ultimate teachers. They keep people feeling a sense of intense achievement, creating more motivation to keep engaging with the content. And motivation is undoubtedly the best way for people to absorb enormous amounts of information and gain skills. Interestingly, looking at how game creators teach skills in a game environment could revolutionize teaching and learning as we know it.

So hey, video games. Be manipulated into learning cognitive skills, gain confidence and become a revolutionary.

Not a bad mix if I do say so myself.

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