Video Games - Mental Exercise or Merely Brain Candy?

In many circles, video games are still considered to be a waste of time. However, recent work in cognitive neuroscience has shown that certain types of video games can result in a variety of positive changes to visual attention, hand-eye coordination, and other perceptual skills.

As Green and Bavelier showed in an already-classic 2003 Nature article, action video game players (VGP's) were shown to have increased visual attention capacity on a flanker distractor task, as well as thought to show improvements in their ability to subitize (this is basically the process by which you can tell how many items are in a display without actually counting each item serially). In fact, VGP's could correctly subitize up to 5 items on average, while non-VGP's could subitize only three on average.

The authors also showed that action video games result in "enhanced allocation of visual attention" as measured by the 'useful field of view' task, in which subjects must identify along which spoke of a 8 spoked-wheel on the visual display contains the target stimulus, while the location, eccentricity from fixation, and number of distractors is varied.

Finally, the authors showed that action video game players also have enhanced task switching abilities and a decreased attentional blink, as assessed through a variant on the traditional attentional blink task. In this variant, subjects must identify stimulus 1 and then switch to detecting a target (stimulus 2), while the lag between stimuli is varied; VGP's were able to correctly detect stimulus 2 at lower lags than nVGPs.

Control tests confirmed a causal effect of action video games by training non-video game players on an action video game ("Medal of Honor," to be precise; interestingly,m control subjects were trained on "Tetris"!). However, it is unclear from these data whether the increase in attentional/visual ability is a result of improved target detection, faster processing overall, increased stabilization of information in memory, or a total increase in capacity.

An article by the same authors released in the current issue of Cognition elaborates the findings above, and revises them in important ways. First, it appears that the data previously interpreted as supporting an increase in subitizing may actually reflect the deployment of a serial counting strategy on behalf of the VGPs.

VGPs were also found capable of tracking two more objects on average than nVGPs in a multiple-object tracking task. Similar to the findings discussed above regarding nVGPs and VGPs, the differences only became apparent at levels of higher load, such that nVGPs showed larger performance decrements than VGPs.

As for the precise mechanism which is enhanced in VGPs, and which results in the benefits in the tasks reported above, the authors suggest two possibilities. First, it is possible that VGP's simply have more durable memory traces. A second possibility is that VGP's have an increased "cycle speed" (their words, not mine) with which they refresh existing representations in working memory, thus translating into increased memory capacity.

Finally, the authors also note that their results do not show a connection between subitizing and multiple-object tracking abilities, which had been hypothesized in the literature previously. Instead, MOT appears to increase with serial enumeration ability. According to my interpretation of this fact, it seems that the most parsimonious explanation of the data is that VGPs have an increased "cycle speed," which conveys benefits both to serial counting processes as well as to serial working memory "refresh" processes. This interpretation, it should be noted, is very compatible with the Jensen & Lisman model of working memory capacity, mentioned on this blog several times previously.

Related Posts:
Cognitive Daily: Video games can improve performance in vision tasks (with an excellent set of comments following the post)
Mind Games: Humans, Dolphins and Computers
Active Maintenance and The Visual Refresh Rate
Visualizing Working Memory


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Video games improve visual ability, a necessary skill in case we are attacked by aliens and volunteers are needed to fire laser cannons. Otherwise, they are mostly detrimental. The language and reasoning are located in the frontal lobe, at the upper frontal side of the brain. The image processing is performed in the visual cortex, in the bottom rear part of the brain. When a person demands high image processing, the flow of blood in the brain is directed toward the visual cortex (for that reason it is very difficult to have a conversation while playing a video game); likewise, when the frontal lobe is engaged in language activities, the visual cortex diminishes a little bit is processing capacity (have you noticed that when you are engaged in a conversation, visual clues a bout the environment might be ignored?) This is a cartoonish explanation of a very, very complex process, but still highlights a very important fact: reading causes development of the frontal lobe and associated areas, where the intelligence resides. Proof: Excessive TV is linked to low IQs, while reading is linked to high IQs in kids.

1/01/2007 08:44:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Chatham said...

Hi Anonymous - I think you've over-simplified the issue. First, I have a hard time imagining how visual skills are detrimental; they clearly have advantages in a variety of everyday situations, some of which could be quite dangerous without strong visual ability (e.g. driving).

Second, while visual cortex may experience increased blood flow when stimulated with lots of visual input, this does not "steal blood" from the frontal cortex. Feel free to provide citations if you have proof of this.

Finally, while IQ may be linked to higher IQ, this is not necessarily a causal relationship. Furthermore, TV consumption has increased steadily in the last 50 years, as have IQs, so it would be hard to push this argument too far. I recommend "Everything Bad Is Good For You" for an entertaining alternative perspective on the possible potential of video games.

1/02/2007 06:23:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is some interesting work being done by an organization called Changemakers and the Robert Wood Johnson foundation in this area.
They are holding a competition to see whats out there in this space.

9/06/2007 12:53:00 PM  

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