Mar 30 2009

Another Reason To Play Video Games

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I will reveal my conflict of interest right upfront – I love video games, I have played them all my life, and I still play regularly. Take that for what it’s worth.

That is partly why I am interested in news items, like this one about a recent study that shows that playing certain kinds of video games correlates with improved visual ability.  Researcher Daphne Bavelier compared the visual ability of groups of subjects who were made to play various types of video games. In the active group the video games were action oriented – Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 2. In the control group subjects played the same amount of The Sims 2 – 50 hours over 9 weeks.

Bavelier found that the active group had a 58% improvement in a standard test of perceiving fine contrast differences – such as distinguishing fine shades of gray. This is a follow up study to a previous one by Bavelier where she found improvements between playing video games and not playing.

Contrast distinction is an important visual skill, useful for night driving, nocturnal zombie hunting, and other tasks.  And the effect size is significant.

This is not the first series of studies to show that playing video games can improve visual abilities. Dr. James Rosser published of study of his training program for laparoscopic surgery (surgery performed with instruments and a camera inserted through small holes), and he found:

Among the 33 residents and attending physicians in Dr. Rosser’s Top Gun Laparoscopic Skills and Suturing training program, those who currently played video games committed 32% fewer errors and were 24% faster than nonplayers.

These combined with other research are beginning to show a pattern – active video tasks, those that involve problem solving, visual skills, manual dexterity, and decision-making, improve ability in those tasks. Video games that do not involve those skills do not improve them. In this recent study, playing The Sims, which does not involve fast action, had no effect on visual discrimination.

But how extensive is this effect? And, more importantly, what is the net effect on overall intelligence and academic performance?

Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, argues that today’s multimedia culture is all good and is making people smarter. His opinion is partly evidence-based and partly opinion, but is reasonably well argued. He argues that even television shows, like 24, require the audience to play close attention to plot details, and fill in missing elements to solve the unfolding mystery.

Johnson’s position is supported, at least in part, by the Flynn effect. Over the last five decades the average IQ of people living in industrialized nations has been increasing by about 3-8 IQ points per decade.  Further, the Flynn effect is strongest for abstract reasoning and non-verbal skills, and less for traditional verbal skills.

Although there is no consensus as to what is causing the Flynn effect, this pattern could reflect exactly what Johnson is talking about – living in an increasingly complex and multimedia world is resulting in greater mental ability, especially in those areas needed to cope with just such a world.

But wait a minute – TV making kids smarter? That goes against the conventional wisdom, and a large body of research, showing that TV watching is associated with poorer academic performance.  But this story is more complex also, and in fact reinforces the above pattern. The research does show that children who watch the least TV are more likely to graduate college than those who watch more, and that those children who watch the most TV are more likely not to graduate, to underperform academically, and to be obese.

(As an aside, this effect was strongest for average IQ children and weakest for the highest and lowest IQs. This supports a general trend I have noticed, which makes sense, that environment has the strongest effect at those genetically in the middle of the Bell curve, while the extreme ends of genetic ability tend to trump environment.)

But, back to the main point, the research also has many mixed results. For example, some studies show that the TV effect goes away when socioeconomic status is taken into consideration. But recent studies suggest that a stronger variable is likely at work – the type of TV that children are watching. Most of the studies that show a negative effect from TV watching did not control for entertainment vs educational TV. Those studies that do look at this variable show that educational TV has a positive effect on IQ and academic performance, while entertainment TV has a negative effect – independent of the amount of TV watching.

So, just like with video games, the type of TV seems to be the most important variable.

Further, a recent review of the literature by Patricia Greenfield found that while consuming more multimedia improves visual learning, it may be hurting critical thinking skills that are better served by traditional reading.

Another variable not yet discussed is that of novelty – doing new types of mental tasks. There is research suggesting that novelty has a very positive effect on learning.  Such tasks may also reduce the risk of dementia. The current thinking is that calling upon the brain to perform novel tasks coaxes it to form new pathways and connections, and may even recruit neural stem cells that are awaiting to form those new connections.


That was a fairly rapid tour through a long and complex collection of research, which is also ongoing and has yet to address many important questions. However, the picture that has emerged so far, from my reading of all this research, is as follows:

Overall intelligence is on the rise, and this plausibly correlates to the increasing complexity of our modern world. This includes access to a plethora of information and media.

Further, the type of media and content matter greatly. Active tasks, those that involve specific mental skills such as hand-eye coordination, problem solving, visual tracking and discrimination, and critical thinking – will improve those skills.Therefore, active multimedia and other activities should be preferred over passive activity, and educational TV is better than purely entertainment TV (for those concerned with their cognitive ability).

However, such tasks do not necessarily improve other mental skills, and if they are neglected those skills will atrophy. Therefore it is also better to consume a variety of media. Video games are great for visual learning and skills, but reading is better for the imagination and critical thinking.

It therefore seems to be more than OK to watch TV and play video games, as long as there is a good balance of educational TV in the mix, and the video games are not mindless. Also, multimedia consumption should be balanced with traditional activities, such as reading and perhaps even board games and traditional puzzles.

And occasionally mix it up – add new activities that you have never done before. Take up an instrument, play a new type of game, or learn a new technology.

I will add that all of this mental activity should be balanced with physical activity as well, if we want to avoid becoming an increasingly sedentary and obese population.

There is also now a cottage industry of products that will promise to achieve higher mental function through their scientifically formulated special computer programs or other activities. Such claims are generally not supported by evidence, meaning that there is no advantage to these often high-cost products over just following the advice I laid out above.

So go ahead, play your favorite video games. Just remember that the classic advice for moderation, variety, and balance seem to apply.

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