Today‘s video game market is larger and more diverse than it’s ever been, encompassing everything from “functional” games designed to improve a specific modality of brain function, to games intended as pure entertainment. Dovetailing with the rise of gaming as a popular way to spend one’s leisure time, research into the effects this might have on our minds has been steeply on the rise.
Now, a new study, published in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioural and Brain Sciences argues that action video games might have benefits that rival even the more focused “neural training” exercises, which, despite their touted advantages, are not well-researched yet, and consistently produce vague or conflicting results.
According to study authors, asking what effect do video games have on our brains is no more meaningful than asking the same question about food – the answer to both depends on a wide variety of factors that have to be identified and controlled for.
Analysing past research on the cognitive effects of playing action games – which typically feature quickly moving targets, large amounts of visual clutter, and require players to make split-second decisions – Drs. C. Shawn Green from the University of Wisconsin and Aaron R. Seitz from California University found them to be uniquely beneficial in several areas of cognition.
“Action video games have been linked to improving attention skills, brain processing, and cognitive functions including low-level vision through high-level cognitive abilities. Many other types of games do not produce an equivalent impact on perception and cognition. Brain games typically embody few of the qualities of the commercial video games linked with cognitive improvement.”
Green and Seitz also noted that while the games themselves do not impair one’s ability to sustain attention, total playing time does predict poorer attention in the classroom. Furthermore, the effects of video games reach beyond cognitive function, and have an impact on many other aspects of behaviour – such as social functions – that can be both positive and negative, depending on the contents of the game in question.
“Modern video games have evolved into sophisticated experiences that instantiate many principles known by psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators to be fundamental to altering behaviour, producing learning, and promoting brain plasticity.”
By their very nature, video games deal more with active forms of learning (i.e., making responses and receiving immediate feedback), which has been shown to be more effective than passive learning in most cases.
In terms of future research, the authors hope to eventually “determine what game characteristics are most responsible for such benefits, and then to utilize this information to continue to refine custom designed games for cognitive impact”.