Redemption for the fast and furious?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

By Wray Herbert

My kids cut their video gaming teeth on Super Mario Brothers in the late 80s, and I confess I had some qualms about buying our first Nintendo. Would these seemingly pointless games be intellectually numbing, a waste of time and money? Would my kids lose interest in books? The usual parental fretting, I guess. But Mario and Luigi’s adventures with Princess Toadstool seemed benign enough, so we took the plunge. I limited their gaming time, and censored their games choices, and they seem to have emerged as undamaged adults.

I had it easy, really. The video gaming culture has become much more pervasive over the past two decades, and as we enter the holiday gift-giving season, many parents are in a deep quandary. Today’s games—especially those for teenagers and young adults—have become much more frenetic. Many reward adrenaline-pumping vigilance, rapid reactions, sharpshooting and other skills of personal combat. So parents are still left to wonder: Is there any redeeming value in the hours that teens spend transfixed by these contests?

Well, the latest psychological science provides at least a partial answer, and one that might surprise a lot of Luddites, Grinches and well-meaning moms and dads. Indeed, parents might consider putting an action video game under the tree not only for their kids, but for their aging parents as well. The weight of evidence, summarized by University of Rochester scientists in the December issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science, suggests that regular gamers are fast and accurate information processors and—more important—that this skill carries over far beyond fragging bots in Unreal Tournament.

Anecdotal evidence has long hinted that players who spend a lot of hours on a game get faster—at least faster at that game. That’s not surprising, but cognitive scientists Matthew Dye, Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier wanted to look beyond the obvious. They gathered together all the existing studies of video gaming that they could find, and crunched them together in what’s called a “meta-analysis”—to see what general conclusions they could extract. They found some surprising insights in the mounds of data.

For example, they found that avid players got faster not only on their game of choice, but on a variety of unrelated laboratory tests of reaction time: finding a particular letter in a field of letters, that kind of thing. They also found evidence that gamers don’t lose accuracy as they get faster. This is important, because skeptics have claimed that avid gamers are simply “trigger happy”—that is, fast but impulsive, and prone to errors. It appears they’re fast and accurate—just as accurate as cautious players. Perhaps most important, they found that all avid players’ share a common underlying cognitive change that explains their generalized quickness and sharpness.

That’s the most important finding. When they examined the gamers’ speed-plus-accuracy boost more closely, they found that the common underlying ingredient is improved visual cognition. Playing video games enhances performance on things like mental rotation skills, visual and spatial memory, and tasks requiring divided attention. What’s more, it’s not just that kids with these skills are drawn to video games. Scientists have trained novices with no particular interest in gaming, and with enough hours, they too become both faster and more visually sharp.

These enhanced visual skills are beginning to sound like talents that might be helpful to an airline pilot, not just a Call to Duty2 champion. But there’s more to recommend these games, the Rochester scientists conclude: Studies have already indicated that training might reduce gender differences in visual and spatial processing, and there is good reason to believe such training might stem the cognitive declines that come with aging as well. Indeed, one theory is that all the decrements that come with aging are related to a generalized slowing of the ability to process information—the exact opposite of the generalized cognitive gain that comes from gaming.

But hold up. There are obviously many other considerations before parents run out and buy the latest first-person assassin game for the whole family. Many of the action-oriented video games are unsuitable for children, and granddad might lack the manual dexterity and eyesight to play these games anyway. But perhaps in a Christmas future, there will be an intergenerational face-off on an educational toy for all ages.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Excerpts from “We’re Only Human” also appear regularly in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:17 AM


At 12:39 PM , Blogger Tom said...

Wow! Great discussion on a great study. I've had so many discussions with friends, associates & even my therapist about the pros & cons of video games. I've always been on the negative side of gaming, but this article is definitely influencing me a bit.

However, while gamers might have increased spatial and reaction abilities. Do they take the time to use them outside of the game? hehe Kind of a joke but kind of serious... Thoughts?


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At 12:15 PM , Blogger elaine said...

I'm all for increased spatial & reaction abilities but with content that would fall in the category of humane. Anybody know of a game like that?


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