Benefits of Playing Video Games

The most recent issue of the American Journal of Play (Fall, 2014) includes an article by researchers Adam Eichenbaum, Daphne Bavelier, and C. Shawn Green summarizing recent research demonstrating long-lasting positive effects of video games on basic mental processes–such as perception, attention, memory, and decision-making.  Most of the research involves effects of action video games—that is, games that require players to move rapidly, keep track of many items at once, hold a good deal of information in their mind at once, and make split-second decisions.  Many of the abilities tapped by such games are precisely those that psychologists consider to be the basic building blocks of intelligence.

Such research employs two strategies correlational and experimental.  In a correlational study, regular gamers are compared, on some perceptual or cognitive test, with otherwise comparable people who don’t play video games.  The typical finding is that the gamers outperform the non-gamers on whatever test is used.  This suggests that gaming is a cause the better performance, but doesn’t prove it, because it is possible that people who choose to play video games are those who already have superior perceptual and cognitive abilities. The best proof that video-gaming improves these abilities comes from experiments in which all of the participants are initially non-gamers, and then some, but not others, are asked to play a particular video game for a certain number of hours per day, for a certain number of days, for the sake of the experiment.  In these experiments, the typical finding is that those who play the video game improve on measures of basic perceptual and cognitive abilities while those in the control group do not.

In what follows, I’ll simply list some of the findings that have come from this sort of research, all of which are summarized in the article by Eichenbaum and his colleagues.  The reference I cite for each finding is to the original research report.

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 (also called “lazy eye”) is a disorder arising from early childhood in which one eye becomes essentially non-functional.  Li and colleagues (2011) performed experiments in which some adults with this disorder played action video games using only the bad eye (the good eye was covered).  Other adults with the disorder did other things with the good eye covered, such as knitting or watching television.  The result was that those in the gaming condition showed great improvement—often to normal or near-normal functioning—while those in the other conditions did not.  Many in the gaming condition developed 20/20 vision or better in the previously “lazy eye,” and visual attention and stereoscopic vision (ability to coordinate input from the two eyes to see depth) were restored to normal.

Green & Bavelier (2012) found that action video gaming improved performance on the ability to locate, quickly, a target stimulus in a field of distractors–a test that has been found to be a good predictor of driving ability.

Executive functioning refers to a person’s ability to allot his or her mental resources (such as perception, attention, memory) in ways that allow for rapid, efficient problem solving or decision-making.  Many experiments have shown positive effects of video-game training on measures of executive functioning.  Here are two examples

Chiappi and colleagues (2013) found that 50 hours of experience on an action video game significantly improved performance on a test called the Multi-Attribute Task Battery, which is modeled after skills required in piloting aircraft.  It involves using a joystick to keep a target centered on a screen, monitoring fuel levels, responding to lights on an instrument panel, and listening and responding to radio communication.  High scores on this test correlate well with real-world piloting performance.

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